Dr. John Thompson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Life or death chosen at flick of biological switch 

In his breakthrough research on senescence (biological aging), John Thompson has determined how life or death is chosen at the flick of a molecular switch.

Dr. John Thompson and his researchers in the lab

Thompson, professor emeritus of biology and associate vice-president of university research, has discovered that a gene called eukaryotic translation initiation factor 5A (eIF5A) encodes a protein that appears to function like a biological switch, regulating cell death or survival.

After finding eIF5A in plants, Thompson began to wonder if there was a similar process in other species.
Further research showed that the sequence of the eIF5A gene in animals and humans is virtually identical to that in plants, meaning that its function has been highly conserved across the plant and animal kingdoms,” he says.
Thompson’s findings led him to develop eIF5A technology that can be used to influence whether cells die or survive.
It has shown great promise as a therapy for various healthcare applications,” he says. “Studies with animal models have indicated that eIF5A technology can be used to treat a broad range of cancers, as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and sepsis.
The technology also has profound implications for potential applications in the agricultural sector. It can be used to enhance the yield of agronomic crops, to confer tolerance to environmental stress and plant diseases, and to increase the shelf-life of perishable produce, such as bananas.

Upon realizing the broad application of the technology, Thompson co-founded Senesco Technologies, a start-up company which aims to improve commercial agriculture and treat major medical conditions in humans. Senesco has experienced considerable success, forming partnerships with well-known companies such as Bayer CropScience and Monsanto, and with medical centres such as the Mayo Clinic.

With his contributions recognized internationally, a humble Thompson likes to share credit for his accomplishments.

I have to pay tribute to the wonderful students, post-doctoral fellows, and research associates I’ve worked with along the way,” he says. “The research we’ve done has enabled us to collaborate with some of the best senior scientists and biotech companies in the world.