Alberta Researcher Profile
Who: Dr. Ian Lewis
Associate Professor of the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, and the Alberta Innovates Translational Health Chair in Metabolomics
Dr. Ian Lewis specializes in Precision Infection Management (PIM), metabolic, and other analytical tools to identify and quantify metabolites to investigate the connection between metabolic adaptation and fatality of human pathogens. The goal of Lewis’ research is to develop new diagnostic methods to identify high risk patients and antimicrobial therapies to control infectious diseases.
Dr. Ian Lewis’ love of science started when he was young with help from his father, a biologist. Lewis grew up surrounded by discussions related to human health and infectious diseases, with conversations about parasitology being a frequent subject. The early exposure led him to pursue his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I wanted to join the biochemistry program there because it was a large, well-recognized department, but I didn't have a good idea what I wanted to study there since they had a limited number of people working in infectious diseases at the time.”
Lewis then learned about Dr. John Markley’s National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison
(NMRFAM), one of the world’s largest NMR facilities that served as the hub for a major structural genomics centre.
When Lewis arrived, Markley had recently stared a metabolomics program and needed somebody to spearhead the effort.
“I benefited from some lucky circumstances, I happened to arrive when Dr. Markley’s metabolomics program got funded. As a result, I contributed to the development of one of the first standardized metabolomics spectral libraries, helped develop new foundational methods and software for NMR-based metabolomics, and was exposed to many exciting scientific collaborations using these tools.”
Because of his work with NMRFAM, Lewis was able to establish his career and interest metabolomics.
In terms of change, Lewis says the ‘omics’ industry has evolved from a focus on methods development to tackling challenging biological problems.
“The conversation has moved away from tools and how to do things and more towards how to leverage this technology to enable interesting science. I like the current direction of the field and I’m enthusiastic in finding molecular mechanisms at work behind complex diseases. I am also very interested in translating these molecular findings into real-world technologies that improve health.”
In Lewis’ search to grow his research he was recruited to the province as an Alberta Innovates Translational Health Chair. Attracted by Alberta’s consolidated medical record system and consolidated access to healthcare, Lewis made the move from Princeton University to the University of Calgary.
“I could foresee a career leveraging Alberta’s unique healthcare environment as a vehicle for translational research on a major scale… moving here allowed me to launch some high-risk, high-reward, projects that would not have been possible elsewhere…it was a life-changing opportunity for me.”
Lewis’ current research focuses on making rapid diagnostic tools for infectious diseases and leveraging omics technologies (genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics) to understand the molecular characteristics that make certain microbes more dangerous when they cause infections. The goal of this is to help shape how healthcare is delivered and to enable life-saving treatments to be delivered faster.
In a project funded by Genome Canada and Genome Alberta through the Genomics Applications Partnership Program Lewis has led team who has developed a new device that help diagnose bloodstream infections (BSI) 20 hours faster than conventional tools.
Using metabolomics, Lewis and the team have developed a rapid metabolomics-based approach that identifies pathogens and determines their sensitivity to antibiotics in under 4 hours.
Read more about this work on Genome Alberta’s blog
and the publication in Nature Communications
Lewis’ Genome Canada Large Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) aims to translate his microbial research to the bedside by creating a more precise way of calibrating clinical therapies according to the individual risks each patient faces. This LSARP project harnesses one of the largest collection of genomes, metabolomics, and proteomes of BSIs, along with patient medical records, to map the molecular traits that predict potential risks posed by each individual bacterial isolate. This unique dataset will ultimately allow clinicians to employ a Precision Infection Management (PIM) strategy, which will match patients to the appropriate care according to the unique risks posed by each infection.
“The technologies enabled by this research can affect thousands of lives. And it's a case where our omics-based tools can really make a big difference; in some cases, it could mean life or death.”
Lewis’ research program has built tools for studying the molecular details of microbes in large-scale studies. He is increasingly interested in harnessing these tools to enable real-time monitoring of microbes in healthcare settings for outbreak detection and to track the movement of dangerous microbes through populations.
Lewis is also interested in the evolution of microbe populations and understanding how human choices affect resistance and virulence trends over time.
“There are some really important areas of research that need more attention. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has become increasingly prevalent over the last 20 years and eventually can significantly reduce life expectancy in Canada. This will ultimately reshape the types of medical interventions that are possible.”
In terms of global impact, Lewis say AMR urgently needs more attention. And it’s one emerging research theme that he and his lab are exploring.
Words of Advice
When working with his students, Lewis tells them to view science as a creative process embedded in a marathon.
“Science is like art, it's an iterative creative process. Studies are rarely right the first time, rarely perfect, and concepts takes an immense amount of time to refine, craft, and make right.”
Lewis says it is also important to be open to scientific discoveries outside of your area of expertise.
“In science, your niche finds you, not the other way around.”
Working with Genome Alberta
Working with research-based grants for the entirety of his career has caused Lewis to see that partnering with the right funders can help make or break a project.
“Genome Alberta has been an amazing partner in my program ever since the beginning. They have enabled new partnerships, sharpened my scientific thinking, and helped ensure my lab’s scientific progress is translated into the tools that have real-world benefits. I am very grateful for their support.”
For more information about Lewis’ research visit his website