By Neale McDevitt
Two weeks after the formal announcement that Mark Lathrop – one of the world’s top genomic researchers – has been named as Scientific Director of the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre, there is still a buzz in the air.
“Mark Lathrop gives McGill instant recognition as a major player in the future of genomics and personal medicine,” Rémi Quirion, Vice-Dean (Science and Strategic Initiaives) in the Faculty of Medicine, told The Reporter earlier this week. “This is a key recruitment to ensure the pre-eminence of the Innovation Centre as a world leader in genomics.”
Quirion echoed the sentiments of the Feb. 14 press conference – a standing-room only event that drew a veritable Who’s Who of McGillians. Chancellor Arnold Steinberg, Provost Anthony Masi and representatives from McGill’s affiliated hospitals were just some of the people in the audience for what Richard I. Levin, Vice-Principal of Health Affairs and Dean of Medicine, called “a celebration, not an announcement” in his introductory remarks.
“We are delighted to welcome Dr. Mark Lathrop to McGill,” said Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum. “In addition to his scientific excellence, he is a world-class researcher with a proven track record as a remarkably successful innovator. His
arrival bolsters the Centre’s position as a leader in genomic science in Quebec, Canada and abroad. We look forward to working with him in developing this cornerstone of 21st-century scientific discovery.”
The upbeat mood of the event became even more jovial when Clément Gignac, Quebec Minister of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade, announced that the provincial government would be giving $5 million to help recruit the world’s best researchers to set up shop at the Centre.
“We’re in business,” said a smiling Gignac of the arrival of Lathrop, an Alberta native, back to Canadian soil, stressing that establishing Quebec as a hub of genomics research will play a crucial role in the province’s future prosperity.
“We’re proud that Dr. Lathrop has chosen to continue his research in Quebec,” Gignac said. “His presence here will strengthen the entire field of human health in Quebec, particularly in the domain of personalized medicine… It is days like today that make it rewarding to be a politician.”
When he took the podium, Lathrop, who has spent the last 30 years in Paris and at Oxford, noted that while the 2003 sequencing of the human genome is considered the field’s seminal moment thus far, the repercussions of that discovery “are just now starting to be felt. It’s like we experienced the earthquake with the sequencing but now we have the tidal waves and tsunamis around the world reflecting the impact of that sequencing,” Lathrop said.
“The Innovation Centre, [with its] technology and expertise in genetics, expertise in ethical issues and its close integration with medical research in particular in Quebec, has a very strong potential to be among the world leaders [in the field].”
Lathrop trained in theoretical statistics and genetics at the University of Washington, following undergraduate and Master’s work at the University of Alberta. After obtaining his PhD, he moved to France, where he was one of the founders of the Centre d’Étude du Polymorphisme Humain, which pioneered international collaboration on the human genome in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1993, he moved to the University of Oxford where he was the co-founder and first scientific director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, an institute created to apply genomic approaches to understanding the molecular basis of human disease. At the request of the French government, he returned to France in 1998 to found the CNG as the principal national centre for human genetic studies.
Lathrop’s current research focuses on the identification of DNA variants that predispose humans to common diseases – particularly lung cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease – and to understand their effects in a biological and public health context.