Director, Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research
Dr. Tak Wah Mak is one of the world’s most cited and accomplished scientists. Canada is fortunate that he has worked most of his career in this country, specifically at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. His incessant curiosity in the sciences, and his perpetual vision and commitment to conquering cancer, have bestowed upon him a national and international legacy – one that has contributed tremendously to Canada’s establishment as a world-class hub for innovation and medical discovery.
Mak’s family moved from Hong Kong to the United States in the mid-1960s, and Mak ultimately moved to Canada in 1969 to obtain his doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta. After earning his PhD, Mak was recruited by the Ontario Cancer Institute (now Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) in Toronto for a postdoctoral fellowship. It was at this laboratory, in 1984, that he made the discovery of a lifetime – he identified and cloned the T-cell receptor. This was considered the “holy grail” in immunology, and his discovery has had vast implications in the scientific world. In particular, it unleashed a surge of interest in immune therapy – a rapidly expanding field within cancer medicine.
In 2004, Mak was appointed Director of the newly launched Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where he established a strong multidisciplinary team committed to studying and finding cures for the most complex forms of cancer. Together with his Co-Director, Dr. Pam Ohashi, Dr. Mak has been instrumental in developing Canada’s most comprehensive immune therapy program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
Through his directorship position, Dr. Mak has also collaborated with many other scientists conducting breakthrough research. Of particular note is his multi-decade collaboration with Dr. Dennis Slamon of UCLA – best known for his development of the cancer drug Herceptin. Together, Mak and Slamon received $20M from the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium to co-lead research aimed at developing new drugs for solid tumor cancers. In 2013, after years of scientific investigational work, Dr. Mak and his team filed and received Investigational New Drug approval for a compound targeting PLK4, an enzyme involved in cancer cell division/growth. This new first-in-class drug has since moved into Phase 1 testing at The Princess Margaret and UCLA, and has proven successful at stopping the growth and spread of many types of cancer in the laboratory.
His groundbreaking work positioned him to receive numerous prestigious international awards. Dr. Mak is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1986), a recipient of the Gairdner International Award for Science (1989), an Officer of the Order of Canada (2000), and a laureate of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (2009). He has also received many distinguished prizes, including the Sloan Award (1996), the Novartis Prize in Immunology (1998), and the Paul Ehrlich Prize (2004).
In addition to these awards, his illustrious reputation has made him a highly sought-after researcher for scientific advisory boards across North America. He currently shares his expertise on approximately twelve scientific boards – most notably, Stand Up To Cancer. Through this position, he represents Canada while working with an esteemed group of scientists, physicians and patient advocates to ensure that grants are distributed to the most innovative and promising cancer research
We can confidently say that Mak’s impressive scientific record has been a major contributor to The Princess Margaret’s reputation as one of the top 5 cancer research centres in the world. His research has drawn leading scientists from around the world to work in his laboratory, and has attracted substantial grant funding and donor gifts to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. In fact, $50M of the Campbell family’s philanthropy has been directed towards Dr. Mak’s research.
In addition, for the past twelve years, women and men from across the province have participated in the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers to raise funds in support of Dr. Mak’s research. He has always been available to cheer on and thank the thousands of walkers who have risen over $145M for his lab and other programs at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Thus, while Mak is internationally acclaimed in the scientific world, he is also beloved by thousands of cancer patients in the community – providing them with a source of hope, and a face to associate with medical progress and innovation.
Throughout his successful scientific career, Mak has displayed an enormous sense of modesty and humility. He claims that 50% of his scientific breakthroughs are due to “good luck”. The remaining 50% he would attribute to his team – Dr. Mak is always sure to honour his team of scientists, and to recognize the collaborative efforts that enable his laboratory’s success.
Of final note, Dr. Mak has remained exceptionally loyal to Canada throughout his long and distinguished career. He is extremely proud of his ties with The Princess Margaret, and has rejected many tempting offers to join other leading cancer centres around the world.