About Sickkids
About SickKids

Peter Dirks, MD, PhD

The Hospital for Sick Children
Staff Neurosurgeon

Research Institute
Senior Scientist
Developmental & Stem Cell Biology

Principal Investigator
The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre

University of Toronto
Professor of Neurosurgery
Department of Surgery

Department of Molecular Genetics

Phone: 416-813-7654 ext. 206426
Fax: 416-813-4975
e-mail: peter.dirks@sickkids.ca

For more information, visit:

Dirks Lab

Brief Biography

Dr. Peter Dirks graduated from Queen's University Medical School in Kingston, Ontario in 1989. Then, he completed his PhD in Molecular and Cellular Pathology in 1997 at the University of Toronto, his neurosurgery training at the University of Toronto in 1998 (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Canada, 1998) and his Paediatric Neurosurgery Fellowship training at L'hôpital Necker Enfants Malades (Paris) in 1998.

Dirks was appointed to Neurosurgical Staff at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the University of Toronto in 1998 and appointed to the SickKids Research Institute's Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Program in 1999. He established his research laboratory to study brain tumours in the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre at SickKids in 1999.

Clinical Care Activities 

Dirks' clinical interests lie with the entire spectrum of paediatric neurosurgical practice, with emphasis on the surgical treatment of childhood brain tumours and brain vascular malformations.

Research Interests

  • Brain tumours
  • Cancer stem cells
  • Neural stem cells
  • Neural development

Research Activities 

The long term goal of Dr. Peter Dirks' research program is to determine if a normal neural stem cell or progenitor cell is transformed into a brain tumour. Two different approaches are being used in his lab to study this question.

One approach involves a study of primary human brain tumours obtained from neurosurgical operations to determine if stem cell populations exist in brain tumours. The group is interested in finding out if there is a small population of cancer cells in a brain tumour that uniquely have the ability to maintain the tumour or can all brain tumour cells drive tumour growth? Dr. Dirks' lab isolated and characterized a cancer stem cell from human brain tumours of different phenotypes that express neural stem cell markers with stem cell-like behaviour in vitro . These cells were isolated from both low grade and high grade primary brain tumours (astrocytoma, glioblastoma, ependymoma, medulloblastoma, anglioglioma) and represented only a small fraction of the total tumour cell population. This subpopulation of tumour cells could be considered as cancer stem cells, because they share properties with normal neural stem cells and are necessary for maintaining tumour growth in vitro. The identification of the brain tumour stem cell has important implications for understanding the mechanisms of brain tumorigenesis. Because this cell represents only a small number of the total number of cells in a brain tumour, it suggests that therapy that spares this cell may explain tumour recurrence. Studies of a brain tumour stem cell will lead to further insight into the normal brain cell that is the target for brain tumorigenesis.

The second approach involves a study of normal neural stem cells, to attempt to understand key determinants of proliferation and self renewal in these cells. Dr. Dirks' research is focused on the study of the Sonic hedgehog (Shh) signalling pathway, because it has been found to be perturbed in primary human brain tumours (medulloblastomas), and because it has been shown to be critically important for normal brain development. Preliminary studies in our laboratory suggest that different Shh pathway members play important and distinct roles in neural stem cell proliferation and self renewal. A better understanding of how this pathway functions in normal neural stem cells may help us to better understand brain tumour proliferation and self renewal.

External Funding

  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)
  • Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute (CCSRI)
  • Ontario Institute of Cancer Research (OICR)


  • 2009 - The Farber Award - American Association for Neurological Surgeons/Congress of Neurological Surgeons
  • 2008 - Terry Fox Young Investigator Award, Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute
  • 2005 -  Royal College Medal Award in Surgery, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada
  • 2005 - George Armstrong Peters Prize for outstanding academic productivity in research
  • 2004 - Canada's Top 40 Under 40 - Caldwell Partners
  • 2003 - Bernard Langer Surgeon Scientist Award, Department of Surgery, University of Toronto


For a complete list of publications, please see PubMed

Gallo M, Ho J, Coutinho FJ, Vanner R, Lee L, Head R, Ling EK, Clarke ID, Dirks PB. (2013) A tumorigenic MLL-homeobox network in human glioblastoma stem cells. Cancer Research. 73(1):417-27.

Nguyen LV, Vanner R, Dirks PB, Eaves CJ. (2012) Cancer stem cells: an evolving concept. Nature Reviews: Cancer. 12(2):133-43.

Intellectual Property

Treatment for Brain Cancer