Healing Vision

Dr. Vassilios Papadopoulos, Director of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, talks about what $250 million buys these days.

By James Martin

Owen Egan
Credit: Owen Egan

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI MUHC) supports more than 600 researchers and nearly 1,200 graduate and postdoctoral students. A new state-of-the-art medical research centre, to be built as part of the MUHC’s future “superhospital” on the Glen Yards campus, promises to help the Institute usher in a new era of scientific discovery in fundamental and clinical research—and on August 20, 2008, that dream moved closer to becoming reality when the federal Canada Foundation for Innovation awarded $99,988,343 to the project. The CFI grant will be matched by $100 million in funding from the Quebec government and $50 million from the Best Care for Life Campaign of the MUHC Foundations. Dr. Vassilios Papadopoulos, director of the RI MUHC, spoke to Headway shortly after the CFI announcement, which came mere weeks after his own election to the Académie nationale de médecine in France. “I’m having a good month,” he quipped. “I can’t expect them to all be this good!”

This money represents the CFI’s largest ever infrastructure investment. How will you use it, and the

other $150 million?

$175 million is dedicated to construction, and it’s a condition of CFI that we have to break ground within 18 months of receiving the money—so you’ll see me digging in Glen Yards soon. The remaining $75 million is for equipment, some of which doesn’t even exist yet. We want to make sure we’ll be at the forefront of science, so we’re working with industry to develop the next generation of equipment, like advanced microscopy and other imaging technology. We also work very closely with the clinicians to make sure the equipment can also be applied to clinical research. At the end of the day, there are patients in the hospital beds, and we need to take care of them, too.

What about the RI’s proposal convinced the CFI to entrust it with $100 million?

We wrote about deconstructing existing boundaries between departments and programs. It’s very important that we physically bring together chemists, biologists, clinical researchers and practicing physicians. We hope to then bring knowledge generated from animal studies to treat human disease—from the bench to bedside. Our researchers are currently spread out over more than 65 separate locations at five hospital sites in 50- to 100-year-old buildings. Given their world-class achievements in these poor conditions, one can only dream of the discoveries that will emerge from a modern facility designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and synergies with the continuous flow of information.

What’s a specific example of the benefits of erasing boundaries?

We have a research theme led by Dr. Jacquetta Trasler, which is about the fetal and perinatal origin of adult disease. A person may be fine until, say, they develop prostate cancer at age 60. Researchers in this theme are trying to trace the beginnings of that disease: the genetic origins, and the environmental factors that may have affected the phenotype. We want to be able to follow somebody throughout their lifespan using a systems medicine approach. It’s close to what they call personalized or individualized medicine, but will be applied to the entire population. At present, we can’t do that. To get there, we’ll need to cross genetics, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, medicine, cancer biology—you have to use every method available.

This project has a long gestation. How do you keep enthusiasm from flagging?

By having people be part of the team. I was recruited in November 2006, and during my first four months at McGill I met with literally 500 people. This project has always been a big team effort, and I’m grateful to Dr. Arthur Porter [Director General and CEO of the MUHC], Denis Thérien [Vice-Principal, Research and International Relations], Dr. Rich Levin [Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-Principal, Health Affairs] and all the scientists that were involved and continue to be so. Sometimes I feel like the conductor of an orchestra—and I’m lucky because I have the best violin player, the best bassist, etc. The people were never an issue; that’s the strength and beauty of McGill.

I don’t want to wait until the new building is ready to fill it up. We’re looking at alternatives now so we can start recruiting the best and brightest new people. If we establish the right momentum, the minute the new building is ready, we’ll just pack up and move. Part of my job is making sure our scientists are successful now. We’re offering them a bright future, so we can’t abandon them in the present. We need to show them that our vision is not just words, it’s action.

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