As Canada Excellence Research Chair in Structural Neurobiology at the University of Toronto, Oliver Ernst is focusing his research on the receptors involved in nerve cell communication and offering an important opportunity for Canada's biotechnology industry to create new therapies that enhance the well-being of patients and reduce the economic burden on their families and the health-care system.
Nerve cells communicate by releasing chemical messengers that, in turn, activate receptors and channels that receive and transmit the signal into other cells. Human beings have a large family of over 800 different so-called "G-protein coupled receptors," controlling bodily functions from vision, heart rate and breathing, to memory and learning.
The advances made by biophysicists and biochemists like Ernst in recent years have allowed researchers to build exact molecular models of these receptors on the atomic scale. Ernst's research is increasing our understanding of how these receptors work on the molecular level, and is providing insight into their role in the development of neurological and other types of degenerative diseases. Continuing his groundbreaking work on rhodopsin, the light receptor in the eye, Ernst is also leading the way for new experimental strategies that will make it possible to control signal transmission by nerve cell receptors.
Bringing together internationally acclaimed researchers from the University of Toronto's neuroscience and structural biology departments, Ernst's research program is the first of its kind in Canada, and is creating a global centre of excellence in structural neurobiology.