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About Sickkids
About SickKids

April 13, 2010

Henkelman to receive 2010 Killam Prize in health sciences

By Lisa Nethercott

Dr. Mark Henkelman, a Senior Scientist in Physiology & Experimental Medicine and the Director of the Mouse Imaging Centre (MICe) at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), is the recipient of the 2010 Killam Prize in health sciences. The announcement was made at a news conference earlier this morning at the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences.

The award is one of Canada’s most distinguished for outstanding career achievements; each prize is worth $100,000. Started in 1981by Dorothy Killam in memory of her husband Izaak Walton Killam, the prize honours eminent Canadian scholars and scientists who are actively engaged in research. It’s promoted by the Canada Council for the Arts.

After introducing Canada’s first MRI equipment to the Ontario Cancer Institute in the early 1980s, Henkelman shifted his focus to the application of modern imaging technology to the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases, including spearheading the development of real-time MRI for use in neurosurgery. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he also earned a Master of Science in theoretical physics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

As Canada Research Chair in Imaging Technologies in Human Disease and Preclinical Models and senior scientist, Henkelman’s current research is centred at the MICe lab at SickKids. Recipient of the Robert Noble Prize awarded by the National Cancer Institute (2008) and the Gold Medal of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (2005), he is also a professor in the departments of Medical Biophysics and Medical Imaging at the University of Toronto and is a Senior Scientist in Imaging Research with Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. In 2005, Henkelman was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is also co-author on 273 publications and an author for over 498 abstracts and is an internationally-recognized presenter.

Lisa Nethercott, a member of the Communications & Public Affairs team at SickKids, recently sat down with Henkelman to chat about what this prestigious award means to him, and to learn a bit more about the work he does and why he loves his job.

Q: The Killam Prize is Canada’s top award for medical science, a very prestigious award.  What does it mean to be receiving it?

A: To be selected by my peers and identified as a leader in biomedical engineering is an honour. I’m delighted that, given the range of who may have been chosen, they even chose to look at medical imaging. I feel great.  

Q: As the Director of MICe here at SickKids, can you share a little bit about the program?

A: We know the gene sequence of a human. What we don’t know is how it makes a human. Ninety-nine per cent of the mouse genome overlaps with the human genome. If we study the gene sequence of a mouse we will gain an understanding of the gene sequence of a human. In particular, we look at genes that make things such as human disease.

Q: What are some of your most exciting findings?

A: We have an ability to see very subtle changes in the brain, so subtle that we can see the size of a mouse brain change when a mouse has learned to do what’s called a swimming maze. We never thought we would be able to see that type of precision.

Q: What are your greatest hopes for this program?  

A: Ultimately understanding the biological basis of disease. We’d like to build an international community to create partnerships to understand the 20,000 genes of a mouse. We’d also like to keep growing our international relationships and to increase our global collaboration.

Q: What motivates you to do what you do?

A: I like it. It’s fun. I like the big story, the complicated science of imaging. It’s really strange that we have so much information, but we don’t have the story of how it works.

Q: With such a rich legacy in medical science what provides you with the greatest satisfaction?

A: I gain long-term satisfaction out of the graduate students I have trained. They are now scientists working around the world who call me frequently seeking advice, whose medical careers I follow closely. The pieces I have learned and then find out ten years later that they are hugely valuable to someone else is satisfying. It is remarkable to me that I could probably not name a city where I wouldn’t know someone who would be happy to have me come and give a talk. I am a member of a highly specialized area and remarkably well-known around the world and I find that very gratifying.

Q: Why do students choose this practice?

A: Many come from physics, math and engineering and are interested in imaging, however not necessarily medicine. Imaging is a nice way for people from the hard sciences to get involved in the biomedical area. Many want to work on human imaging. Most of my career I have worked on human imaging. In a sense that has reached a plateau, shifting to mice there is a much bigger long-term applications of understanding the biological basis of disease. Pretty pictures and big toys are the draw for many students.

Q: What is one thing you’d like to communicate about research and funding, one thing you want a public audience to know about the work you do?

A:  I like giving talks to the public. Mainly because this is highly visual. It is fun to give talks to fairly broad audiences. It’s stuff they’ve never seen before, but they look at it and say “Wow, it’s amazing that you can see right through an embryo.”

There’s a big wow factor. Interest in mice is rising internationally it is THE way to understand what is happening in the human.  We currently have very little knowledge of how the pieces fit together the mouse genome alone would fit 60 volumes.

Q: What’s one thing you want people to remember when they think of Dr. Mark Henkelman?

A: I want them to regard my work as very good work, very high quality, done with incredibly high integrity.  After a talk I gave recently at SickKids a scientist came up to me to say, “Whenever I hear you speak, I get so excited about science.” I like that.