TORONTO -- Two pioneering researchers in the HIV-AIDS field are among this year's winners of the prestigious Canada Gairdner Awards.

Each year, seven awards -- which are nicknamed the "baby Nobels" because 83 Gairdner winners have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes -- are handed out along with $100,000 cheques.

Dr. Frank Plummer is the recipient of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, which honours a Canadian who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science.

The scientist, academic and former head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is being recognized for "groundbreaking research" he conducted in Africa that helped in understanding HIV transmission.

With support from the University of Manitoba, Plummer conducted research throughout the 1980s on a large group of sex workers in Nairobi, Kenya.

He discovered that two-thirds of them had HIV-AIDS. Meanwhile, despite multiple exposures, about 10 per cent of the sex workers were not infected by HIV. The identification of "natural resistance" to HIV was able to guide strategies in vaccine development, and are being used worldwide to prevent many thousands of HIV infections. As head of the National Microbiology Laboratory, Plummer also led the response to numerous outbreaks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was named recipient of the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, which recognizes an individual responsible for a scientific advancement that has made a significant impact on health in the developing world.

Fauci, director of the U.S.-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was honoured for "critical contributions" made to understanding how HIV destroys the body's immune defences.

He played a pivotal role in directing research that led to the development of antiretroviral drug combinations, transforming the lives of people infected by HIV. He was also one of the main architects of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has already been responsible for preventing millions of HIV infections throughout the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The other five award recipients were recognized for their work on a technique used for gene editing known as CRISPR:

  • Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou of North Carolina State University, and DuPont senior scientist Dr. Philippe Horvath for their research on understanding the genetic basis of bacteria used in fermenting food.
  • Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden, and Dr. Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley for publishing the description of new genome editing technology dubbed CRISPR-Cas9. The technology allows biologists to disable, activate or alter genes with "high efficiency and precision."
  • Dr. Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, whose team pioneered development of genome editing tools for use in human cells relying on CRISPR systems. The technique may prove to be a "powerful therapeutic" for treating human diseases by editing out harmful genetic mutations.

The awards will be presented at a dinner in Toronto on Oct. 27.