May 15, 2024

How Snyder Institute research changed one lung patient’s life

Generosity of Joan Snyder and others helped transform Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases into global leader for chronic, infectious and inflammatory disease research
Clark Spencer sits on a bench with his dog Kona.
Clark Spencer can enjoy a walk with his dog, Kona, again thanks to research at the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Calgarian Joan Snyder, Hon. LLD’11, was a visionary philanthropist with a love for her community who would only get behind things she believed in deeply. 

“She didn't invest into anything that didn't see some kind of return, whether it was in terms of improved health for the population, or just sheer financial return. She was very clever that way,” says her longtime friend and business adviser Don Brownie, BA'66, who volunteers as a Strategic Advisory Board member for the Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. 

Snyder’s transformational gift in 2008 established the institute at the University of Calgary’s medical school. She would follow it up with several subsequent gifts over nearly two decades, including a historic $35-million legacy gift in 2023 

More than 15 years after her foundational gift, it’s clear Joan Snyder received an exponential return on her investment. Today, the Snyder Institute is a leader in chronic, infectious and inflammatory disease research. Thanks to her generosity, the institute has been able to attract top researchers and clinicians from around the world and is making significant impacts in areas such as microbiome, live cell imaging and organoid research. 

Joan Snyder

Joan Snyder

“It's a collective of individuals who share certain aspirational goals. The discoveries have improved patient care and are continuing to do so. There have been subsequent financial gifts made to the institute because of the success. And that's allowed them to continue to expand,” says Bill Sembo, member and former chair of the Snyder Institute’s Strategic Advisory Board.  

Their research is changing lives for patients like Calgarian Clark Spencer, who credits his stable health to the work being done at the Snyder Institute. In his late 30s he was diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening and incurable fungal lung infection he picked up while living in the southern U.S. After Spencer moved back to Canada, his Calgary medical team started him on a new treatment plan backed by Snyder Institute research and helped him regain lung function.  

“When I was first diagnosed, I didn't think that I was going to make it past 45. So I owe being here to the care that I received and the research behind it,” he says. 

Philanthropy powers world-leading chronic diseases research  

As one of seven health research institutes at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), the Snyder Institute is advancing understanding of chronic disease knowledge and translating it into new treatments. 

Some areas of top impact for the institute include strategic expansion into the relatively new field of organoid research; the innovative solutions offered by the Live Cell Imaging Facility and the groundbreaking work of the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) to pinpoint the role of millions of microbes and identify new microbial medicines — all powered by Snyder's legacy gift and contributions from additional generous donors to the institute. 

As the largest academic germ-free facility in the world at 10,000 square feet, scientists at the International Microbiome Centre study microbiomes in not only people but also in plants, animals and the environment, to find new ways to diagnose and treat health concerns. Its researchers are also looking at how the microbiomes can influence the economy and environment. 

For example, research has shown fecal transplants (FMT) can rebalance bacteria in the gut to cure C. difficile infection, which can cause severe diarrhea as well as other serious complications in patients, and it can even be fatal. Thanks to further advancements at the IMC, FMT can now be taken as a pill treatment. Other studies underway at the IMC include examining how a mother’s microbiome can affect her child’s health and how microbiomes could play a role in late-onset autism.  

“It's impossible to read any scientific literature without reading about bacteria, viruses and fungi. They've always been a major player, but the researchers just haven't focused on them the way we are now,” says Dr. Derek McKay, PhD, director of the Snyder Institute. “I think we're positioned to be world leaders in that category — the potential of the IMC facility is immense.”  

This work has also been directly supported by Geoff Cumming’s $100-million gift made to the CSM in 2014. 

The Snyder Institute is making headway in organoid research through its Human Organoid Innovation Hub (HOIH). Grown from human stem cells, organoids are 2D and 3D miniature organs, reproduced in the laboratory, that can give researchers insight into how real organs will respond to different drugs.  

"It’s really important for patients — we can grow and analyze an organoid from their tissue or blood sample to better understand their condition and to try to do something that will help that individual. That's incredibly powerful,” says McKay, adding there is even the potential that organoids could someday be transplantable, replacing damaged and diseased tissue.  

The discoveries taking place at Snyder are further fuelled by the institute’s Live Cell Imaging Laboratory (LCI). The LCI is an international leader in optical imaging, which allows researchers to visualize cells performing their functions in real time. This has led to new discoveries that can inform treatments for conditions such as asthma, arthritis, sepsis or fungal lung infections such as Spencer’s. 

“The ability to image immunity in real time is definitely what we're known for, and now of course we are building on that by integrating the newest microbiome and organoid research,” adds McKay. 

The LCI’s work has also been generously supported by Calgary philanthropists Matt and Tara Brister. A gift from the McKay Family Foundation (no relation to Derek McKay) provides funding for high-risk, high-reward research taking place at the institute, capitalizing on the world-class facilities: the LCI, the HOIH, and the IMC. 

A life-changing treatment — at home in Calgary  

What started as a Sunday afternoon motorcycle ride for Clark Spencer and his wife, Shelly, on a summer day in 2004 turned into a moment that would change the Calgary man’s life forever. 

Clark Spencer on a motorcycle in Arizona

Clark Spencer takes his motorcycle for a spin in Arizona

The couple was living and working in Phoenix, Ariz., when they experienced a sudden storm that sent dust clouds thousands of metres into the air and stirred up pathogens rooted in the soil below. 

“That's where I ingested a fungal spore that made its home in my lungs … and I became very sick,” says Spencer, who was only 38 years old at the time.  

Spencer was diagnosed with an infection called coccidioidomycosis — commonly known as Valley Fever — which is typically found in dry desert regions. Doctors at an Arizona hospital prescribed a treatment which was very hard on his body. He lost about 20 pounds and had difficulty walking up the stairs or taking the dog for a walk. 

“I just didn't have any lung capacity left,” he says. 

While some patients with Valley Fever can be treated with antifungal drugs and make a full recovery, Spencer’s infection is chronic and left multiple holes in his lungs. 

In 2006, he and his wife moved back to Calgary, where he received a different treatment that would change the course of his illness — thanks to research breakthroughs on fungal lung infections at the Snyder Institute. 

The institute’s research investigates how cells work to defend the body against fungi like the one that causes Valley Fever. By seeing how the cells talk to each other and how they interact with the fungus, it gives researchers clues as to what kind of therapies might be effective to help the cells build up a defence and when it might be helpful for patients to pivot to something else. This work was beneficial for Spencer and informed the treatment plan that has resulted in an improvement in his condition. 

Spencer has now been able to return to doing the things he loves like spending time with Shelly and walking his dog Kona. 

He is so grateful he’s been able to receive more effective care right here in Calgary. 

“I was extremely happy that we were able to come back to Calgary. I have extreme gratitude for the Snyder Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine, which brings talented professionals together in a collegial environment where they share their knowledge, and they translate that into care for the patients.” 

A legacy lives on  

Growing up in a small town in Saskatchewan, Joan Snyder’s parents, Calvin and Phoebe, instilled in her from an early age the power of philanthropy and the value of giving back. 

She believed in supporting her community and also gave generously to women’s health and sport, which included a donation to Dinos women’s hockey at UCalgary, establishing the Joan Snyder Program of Excellence in Women’s Hockey. Her generosity has also inspired many other donors to make gifts large and small, all sparking healthier lives. 

Celebrating 10 Years and Beyond

“A gift of this magnitude attracts others,” says McKay. “They want to help when they see someone else has had so much faith in the institute. And now with Snyder’s recent gift, it sustains the institute in perpetuity — it’s groundbreaking and transformational and it has made a huge difference.”  

Brownie has no doubt that Snyder, who passed away in April 2022 at the age of 90, would be proud of what the Snyder Institute has become.  

“She would just be so pleased,” says Brownie.  

In 2024, the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary is celebrating 10 years of shaping healthier lives sparked by philanthropy, thanks to Geoff Cumming’s historic $100-million gift. The medical school’s seven research institutes are marking up to three decades of national and international excellence, powered by the generosity of their founding families and support of CSM donors both large and small. Groundbreaking discoveries by each institute have directly benefited children, youth and adults in Calgary, across the country and around the world. Together, our community has helped propel UCalgary to its ranking as a top research university in Canada while strongly positioning the university on the global map for health research.

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