Advancing Genomic Medicine in Toronto, An Interview with Dr. Stephen Scherer, PhD

Advancing Genomic Medicine in Toronto, An Interview with Dr. Stephen Scherer, PhD

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By: Tetyana Pekar

The McLaughlin Centre – Advancing Genomic Medicine

You may not yet have heard about it – and you certainly won’t find it on the map – but McLaughlin Centre scientists and collaborators are making scientific breakthroughs, developing new diagnostic tests, and making a lasting impact on clinical management in Toronto and internationally.

The McLaughlin Centre derives its name from the founder of General Motors of Canada, Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin, “an entrepreneur and a brilliant man” in the words of Dr. Stephen Scherer, the Director of the McLaughlin Centre. “When he passed away, he put a large portion of his money into a foundation and said to dissolve it in 50 years, because no one will remember who he is in 50 years.” And so the Foundation ran a competition and University of Toronto put in an application and won. The original 50 million dollar investment, which is protected, was leveraged to 200 million by the University, Government, and partner hospitals.

For about two years now, the McLaughlin Centre has been focused on advancing the field of genomic medicine.

“When I became the Director, we refocused on the concept of using genomewide data to try to identify risk genes for particular diseases, and equally importantly, to move those into the hospital diagnostic setting,” says Scherer. Their goal is to fund science that will not only impact the patients and their families, but will also generate information and data that will be used for things like drug development.

The McLaughlin Centre runs an open competition and funds approximately 10 grants a year, all in the area of genomic medicine. Funding research, however, is just one part of its mandate.

One of the McLaughlin Centre’s goals in the next 5–10 years is to ensure that Toronto becomes a leader in genomic medicine. The IMS Magazine asked Dr. Scherer how the centre plans to achieve this goal.

“The short answer: training programs, funding research projects… and bringing a community of scientists together.”

Scherer emphasizes that “close to 25 percent of the funding is applied to education, training, investing in the MD/PhD program; and many of these students are doing their PhDs in the IMS.” The McLaughlin Centre also supports projects that are investigating the downstream effect of genetic information, supporting genetic counselling programs, and determining the best way to collect data and deliver it to the patient.

A unique feature of the centre is the Accelerator Grant program. “[Currently] if you have a new idea, it is hard to get money right away to explore that.” The accelerator program provides scientists with the opportunity to get seed funding for a year to get preliminary data and see whether the project will be fruitful. Scientists can then apply to receive funding to complete the project.

Finally, the third goal is to bring a community of scientists together. Scherer points out that this is a new field, and having critical mass of clinicians and scientists will create momentum for research in genomic medicine and lead to more innovations and breakthroughs. Indeed, collaboration is a requirement in the grants that McLaughlin funds: “there need[s] to be two or more partner institutions involved.”

In this new and rapidly developing field, it is challenging to stay on top of research findings and innovations in technology. An important part of the McLaughlin Centre’s mandate is to develop tools and databases that will be continuously updated with new information available in the literature about genes and genetic diseases. An equally important component is educating clinicians, nurses, and healthcare professionals (as well as scientists both in and outside of the field) to access and properly interpret this data.

The breadth and calibre of McLaughlin Centre scientists is truly remarkable. The accelerator grants that were funded in 2011 have already led to exciting new findings. Dr. Danielle Andrade’s research on the genetics of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy identified a causative mutation in the CLN6 gene; this work is currently in press in the Pediatric Neurology journal. Dr. Anne Bassett’s work has identified rare copy number variants that could play an important role in the development of a common heart defect, the tetralogy of Fallot; these findings are soon to be reported in PloS Genetics.

Other studies funded by the McLaughlin Centre include investigating how alternative splicing may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease (Dr. Blencowe); development of a service to centralize clinical pharmacogenetic information and counseling (Dr. Koren); examining the impact and integration of genetic technologies in adult and pediatric care (Dr. Shuman); as well as research identifying disease-causing genes in immunoglobin A neuropathy (Dr. Pei) and renal diseases (Dr. Paterson), to name a few.

“[The] McLaughlin Centre is a unique experiment, and it’s going incredibly well.”

The IMS Magazine agrees, and awaits with excitement the novel findings and technological breakthroughs that are sure to come to fruition from McLaughlin Centre scientists.

Dr. Stephen W. Scherer: The “Idea” Guy

Scherer is a highly influential and very successful scientist. In addition to serving as the Director of the McLaughlin Centre and The Centre for Applied Genomics (TCAG), he is also a Senior Scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, a Professor at the University of Toronto, as well as a scientist who never stays far away from the public eye –often making appearances on TV, news, and radio.

The IMS Magazine wanted to find out more about Scherer’s career trajectory and the key to his success. Scherer completed his PhD in the Molecular Genetics Department at the University of Toronto, with Professor Lap-Chee Tsui (discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene). Together, they founded TCAG, which houses all of the latest genomic technologies to enable research studies. Scherer estimates that TCAG facilitates well over 1000 laboratories in a given year.

During his PhD, he made a pioneering discovery: the identification of genomewide CNVs as an important source of genetic variation in humans. His lab continues to investigate the role of CNVs in autism, as well as other disorders, through collaborations.

Scherer’s job requires him to assume many different roles and responsibilities – from running his lab to running two very different Centres – so, is there an aspect of his many roles that he most enjoys?
“I’m the ‘idea’ guy. I have to kind of set the vision of where I think things should be five or ten years down the road and … figure out how to get there – [the challenging part]. I have a job that allows me to capitalize on my strengths. It took a long time to get here, but I get to use my brain – people pay me to think about new things.”

Finally, I asked if he had any advice for incoming graduate students. What advice would have benefited him at the start of his graduate career? He laughed, and said that’s a very easy question: learn statistics. “What we are seeing over and over and over again is that we need to have more biologists who have a strong statistical background. You should be taking statistical classes, it is the one thing that will benefit you the most … [it is] absolutely critical.” (See Allison Rosen’s article in this issue)

But, he warns, it takes more than just a good grasp of statistics to succeed in graduate school. “You have to be persistent, and you have to want to do it yourself, because no one is going to do it for you.”