Santamaria, Dr. Pere

2012 Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology, Honouree

Passion and Dedication Fuel Scientific Discovery

Autoimmune diseases are chronic, debilitating, and sometimes, fatal conditions that affect millions of Canadians. Because they are chronic, they also have a disproportionately high cost to the health care system.

The more than 80 different diseases that comprise autoimmune disease come at a cost of more than $100 billion each year in the U.S.; by extension, Canada’s costs are more than $10 billion per year. Canada and Alberta specifically, have one of the highest incidence of autoimmune diseases in the world.

These are not just facts and statistics to Dr. Pere Santamaria, Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary.

Personal Connection

“When I was 15, I got really sick with an autoimmune disease,” he recalls. “My parents had to take me to several different specialists who had significant difficulties diagnosing me. It took a year to find out what I had.”

Dr. Santamaria spent months in the hospital and saw his young, energetic life cut from under him first by the disease and then by high doses of immune suppressants.

“It had a very big impact on my life. I suspect that being that sick influenced my decision as an 18-year old to choose a career in medicine; and again when I had to choose my focus for my PhD, I chose Immunology. Now, my research affords me the opportunity to help patients affected by the same kind of disease I experienced — so I have come full circle.”

The realization that I have something in my hands that can change medicine gives meaning to coming to the office and working as hard as I can.

Even on bad days, for the last 20 years Dr. Santamaria has counted his blessings because he has been in his lab driven by his passion to treat and cure autoimmune diseases. He has done this while mentoring young scientists, including postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to carry on the work.

Powerful Implications 

Dedicated and determined, he led his research team in the long process of discovery. They discovered a therapeutic type 1 diabetes vaccine that uses nanoparticles to stop immune cells from destroying the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

The therapeutic nanovaccine Santamaria’s team has discovered and developed holds enormous promise for people who suffer from type 1 diabetes or other autoimmune diseases – this therapy operates by restoring the unhealthy immune systems of patients affected by autoimmune disease to their normal state.

“The realization that I have something in my hands that can change medicine gives meaning to coming to the office and working as hard as I can,” Dr. Santamaria says. He anticipates that the therapeutic vaccine will move into clinical trials within about 18 months. Parvus Therapeutics Inc., a University of Calgary spin-off company of which he is scientific founder and Chief Scientific Officer, will lead this effort.

Moving Forward

For the long term, Dr. Santamaria continues to strive to realize the “undreamable dream” of having pioneered the discovery of a new type of medicine that may revolutionize the treatment of diseases affecting many people.

“I will probably spend the rest of my life championing this effort,” he says. “ My goal is to lay the groundwork so when I am gone and others take my place, they will change medicine in a major way.”