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About the Institute

Profile of Susanne Benseler

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Dr. Susanne Benseler

By: Karley Ura

Dr. Susanne Benseler, MD, PhD

  • Associate Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences
  • Staff Physician, Rheumatology
  • Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in a tiny village in northern Germany and went to medical school in Freiburg and Berlin, Germany. I moved to Innsbruck, Austria to do my thesis research in immunology and then returned to Freiburg for my residency in paediatrics. I worked for a few years in the Children’s Hospital in Bonn, Germany and then came to Toronto in 2001 for a fellowship at SickKids in rheumatology.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research is to find out how to rapidly recognize and control inflammation in the blood vessels and surrounding tissue in the brains of children. This disease is called central nervous system (CNS) vasculitis. Previously healthy children present to our hospital with a wide range of serious symptoms, such as seizures or strokes. We then realized that the underlying cause of these symptoms is inflammation of the brain vessels. These children need to be rapidly diagnosed. We have built an international network of researchers with a web-based data collection hosted at Sickkids called the BrainWorks Network. This dedicated group of researchers actively searches for biomarkers to easily identify the brain inflammation in children at SickKids and at paediatric centers around the world. Doctors have to be confident that what they are looking at is inflammation, which can be treated. Control of brain inflammation then allows the brain to heal and prevents brain damage.

3. Who is your all- time favourite scientist, and why?
This is a very difficult question because there are lots of brilliant minds. Many of them are or were located here in Toronto. Naturally, my favorite scientists are immunologists including Georges Kohler  and Cesar Milstein who discovered how to make antibodies. I admire Susumu Tonegawa, and Tak Mak, who discovered the T cell receptor. Many outstanding scientists have given us the puzzle pieces to answer questions about immunology, how our immune system functions and communicates how it fights infections and causes disease.

4. In your opinion, what is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In my field, the concept that blood vessel inflammation in the brain of children is actually happening and causing a broad spectrum of severe deficits in healthy children is really significant. Innovations in many fields including the availability of MRI’s as well have enabled us to recognize an inflammatory process in the brain.

5. What are your interests outside of the lab?
Well, I have a great family. My kids are 17 and 19. The oldest is in university already, so I try to spend as much time with my husband, kids and extended family as I can.

When we moved to Toronto we bought a house and we renovated it and I don’t mean just a paint job. We brought it down to the bricks and renovated. It’s a good thing my husband is handy. We did that because we like to have enough space to entertain. I love spending time with my friends. When our friends come and visit we like to enjoy the city with them as well. I love Toronto.

6. Why science?
I use science as a tool. My primary interest is patient care and science allows me to learn from every patient. Through the studies that I do, I’m able to modify the approach in a way that we are able to learn from every example. Science is a big network of information of all different types. Applying science to the patient, however, allows me to understand why a disease occurs and why a child responds in a particular way. I am a clinical researcher and I love being involved with the diagnosis, treatment, follow up and patient contact.

7. Why SickKids?
Oh, that’s a simple question. I cannot imagine working in a better place. There are so many components that make SickKids a unique place. We deliver extraordinary care, we treat every child with the same warmth and kindness and we all try to do our best work possible. It is also exciting to work with so many amazing people. The wealth of knowledge is unbelievable. This is such a supportive environment and we have wonderful healthcare providers, not just physicians, and you can learn from every one of them. SickKids is a jewel in paediatric care.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
We need better markers of brain inflammation in children. It’s a big challenge for us to link the tools of basic scientists with the clinicians’ tools. We need a simple way to diagnose brain inflammation, a biomarker, which is a simple test to give us the best outcome and the best answer for the family. We need better treatments, strong results and fewer side effects. We have to control inflammation and prevent brain injury in every child.

There is a lot of work to be done. We need to bring caregivers together and give them the tools to be very comfortable in determining inflammation, what kind of inflammation it is and how to effectively treat it.

9. What are you reading?
I’m a non-stop reader. I was recently in Scandinavia and bought a few classical books. The one I’m reading now is The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen. It’s about a girl whose lover travelled away on a boat and never returned. She is desperate; she’s in love with this man and the sea. I also recently read the popular books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson. I like real life stories, with deep emotions.

10. If you could give one piece of advice for someone considering going into a career in research, what would it be?
You have to be passionate about what you want to do. When you decide to do research, you probably know why you want to do it, curiosity, patient care or your spirit. Realistically, there are going to be a lot of times when you are frustrated, where things don’t move forward, you try again and things don’t add up. On the other hand, if it genuinely interests you and you’re passionate about it, it’s going to be alright. Find fantastic people to guide you and a team of lovely human beings to work with. I think this is the secret.

11. What does the tower mean to you?
It’s a building that will incorporate the spirit of research and education in this place and they are phenomenal. I think it will be fantastic that something like this will bring us together. It’s a building, but in filling it with what we are going to fill it with, it will generate new ideas, collaboration and research projects. That’s the uniqueness about it.

March 2011