OCI’s new director Dr. Benjamin Neel was recruited from Harvard Medical School and will take up the post in January 2007. His background in basic research and the medical field combined with his extensive leadership experience at Harvard makes him not only a natural fit with OCI research objectives, but also an excellent choice to take the helm of OCI.
Q: What attracted you to the position of OCI Director?
BN: I chose to come to OCI because I wanted to make a greater impact on the research community than just the research outcomes from my own lab. From my experience, I have realized that not all cancer centres have access to the cancer patient samples in the same way they are available to OCI researchers. OCI’s combined patient population and strong basic research community is difficult to match, creating a unique opportunity for excellent research. Translating basic research discoveries into clinical applications is definitely a priority. I feel that there’s untapped potential here and we could all benefit by better bridging the gap between basic and clinical researchers. I have been trained in both domains and I plan to work hard to bring these forces together in joint programs.
That said, I also have a personal interest in the research that is going on in Toronto—for example, Toronto scientists are playing a leading role worldwide in normal and cancer stem cell biology, and this work is of great interest to me. Also, OCI and its surrounding institutions are building a strong program in proteomics, and in particular phosphor- proteomics, work that my own lab has been trying to pursue.
Q: How do you propose to reinforce these relationships?
BN: I would like to provide a platform for basic scientists to interact and collaborate with clinical researchers. It would be great if we could align each basic scientist with a clinical program, perhaps by disease site. This is obviously happening informally at OCI and by formalizing this approach we can hope to enhance these interactions.
Q: What kinds of outcomes do you hope for, in bridging the gap?
BN: Originally, chemotherapies were given empirically without really knowing why they were working. By taking advantage of recent discoveries on the detailed ways that such therapies perturb the cell cycle and/or cause tumour cell death, we may be able to improve the delivery of current therapies, increasing their efficacy and/or reducing their toxicity, and also better integrate old therapies with new therapies.
There is still discovery to be done on the underlying mechanisms of cancer but we already have substantial insight into cell cycle regulation and programmed cell death—information that could be translated into clinical therapies.
Q: What do you think could be improved upon at OCI?
BN: I think it’s important that there are at least one or two top people in each major area of biomedical research in Toronto for OCI researchers to work and collaborate with. It doesn’t really matter which institute they belong to. To ensure this happens I am going to try to meet frequently with the leadership of the other institutes. I have already met with several of them in Toronto including Janet Rossant at Sick Kids and Jim Woodgett at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, and I have met with Michael Julius at Sunnybrook in the past. In speaking with them it is obvious that we are all on the same page about integrating the research among the institutions. At OCI, we don’t want to compete with other institutes for the best researchers. We just want the best researchers to come to our city and stay in our city. To do this, we have to break down the barriers between institutes.
Q: Funding is always an issue in science. How do you propose to propel funding for OCI researchers?
BN: I think that OCI researchers are already extremely sophisticated and successful in attracting funding. Last year, our research budget was more than 90 million dollars, most of which was from extramural sources. Even in my short time in Toronto, I have seen a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit in terms of applying for team grants, etc. I also want to work with the PMH Foundation to maximize our fundraising abilities, and I have already told Paul Alofs [President & CEO, PMH Foundation] that I am ready wherever and whenever possible to assist in these endeavours.
Q: What are some of your goals for the next five years?
BN: Once I am physically in Toronto, the first thing I would like to do is take some time to meet with OCI researchers and get a feel for what they would like to see materialize and how they fit into the scope of OCI. My plan is to meet with every scientist at OCI, and with many students and post-docs as well. From these interactions I will be able to make sure that OCI’s priorities are aligned with those of its members. I will especially be looking to the senior scientific leadership for advice on these priorities.
The next step will be to recruit new scientists to OCI. We have five positions available immediately, and I see it as an opportunity to recruit bright, young, enthusiastic people in areas that we are strong in, as well as emphasizing new areas that are underrepresented. I also want to assess the core services that are available to the scientists to ensure optimal use of our resources.
Personally, I am looking forward to being within walking distance of the University of
Toronto campus. While I was at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the university campus was miles away and I am curious about what new opportunities being so close to the university community may bring.
Q: And over the long term?
BN: We are in the golden age of oncology research. The only way to measure our success as a cancer centre is by measuring the impact we are having on disease, through better therapies, better diagnosis or both. This should always be what we have in mind as our ultimate objective.