Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Benjamin Alman

Scientist photo
Dr. Benjamin Alman

By: Daniel Puiatti 

Dr. Benjamin Alman, MD, FRCSC

  • Senior Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology
  • Division Head, Orthopaedic Surgery 
  • Vice-Chair, Department of Surgery, University of Toronto
  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Musculoskeletal Research (2001-2010)
  • Canada Research Chair, Musculoskeletal Research
  • University of Toronto, Division of Orthopaedics, Department of Surgery, A.J. Latner Professor and Chair

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
Originally, from the United States, I was born and raised in Philadelphia.

I actually started off studying engineering at the engineering school of Pennsylvania. I worked a few summers as an engineer. Eventually, I decided to try out bioengineering which ignited my passion for medicine. Shortly after, I made the decision to enrol in medical school. Following graduation, I did a few years of general surgery, also in Philadelphia. I then went to Boston where I worked in orthopaedics for four years. 

While in Boston, I treated a patient with a really rare type of tumour called aggressive fibromatosis. He was only four years old and his arm was amputated because of this tumour. Aggressive fibromatosis is a locally invasive tumour. It is not a cancer that moves to other spots in the body. I became fascinated with how a tumour that does not metastasize (travel to other organs), a so-called benign condition, could cause this boy to lose his arm. This fascination led me to get involved with research in molecular biology. I was lucky to get an opportunity in Boston to work with a molecular biologist named Dr. Hubert Wolfe, who was one of the first people to do in situ hybridization as a way to look at genes inside of tissue.

After my residency, the opportunity to research and study molecular pathology came up and I did my fellowship here at SickKids for a year. Afterwards, I went back to Boston with the idea that I was going to try to split my time between doing clinical and research work. I started off doing some work on aggressive fibromatosis with Dr. Wolfe, we identified a gene mutation that creates a tumour and shortly after I was recruited for a position at SickKids. I knew from my fellowship that SickKids has an incredible reputation as a supportive and innovative place for clinical and research work and so I jumped at the opportunity.

2. What are you researching right now?
The theme of my lab is the study of developmental signalling pathways, deregulated pathological processes and the role they play in repair processes.

When I started my work at SickKids, I quickly became interested in how cells develop into organisms and the role that these developments play in diseases and repair. In other words, my lab focuses on understanding the processes that are very important in early development and how those same processes are deregulated in pathological conditions such as tumours. This research is important because it can be applied to developing new and better kinds of treatments for patients.

Our lab identified a gene mutation in a type of tumour in bones, developed an animal model, studied how it affects the cells, identified a pathway that can be blocked, identified a drug that could do it, and now there is a company doing a multi-centered international trial based on our research.

3. Who is your all-time favorite scientist, and why?
In my work I fulfill a variety of roles: I take care of patients, I do administrative work and I also research. So, I have always admired people who are able to excel in a variety of different areas. If you look back in history you see the polymath attribute (the ability to excel in many different areas) in many legendary scientists who worked in: politics, publishing and philosophy. I would have to choose Benjamin Franklin, because he did experiments, he designed new musical instruments, he played a role in politics and so he is a perfect example of someone who embodies that multidisciplinary approach which I admire. 

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In our lab, the most important discovery was the identification of a mutation that caused enchondromatosis. Enchondromatosis is a benign cartilage tumour that develops at the end of the bones. We work in hypothesis that those tumours came from cells in the growth plate that did not undergo a normal differentiation process and die off. 

We discovered that some mutations in these tumours activate a pathway called the hedgehog signalling pathway that normally makes those cells go through multi-cellular differentiation pathways. In other words, we discovered a growth cell that never goes away; it just remains on the end of the bone. These cells can undergo malignant transformation and in some cases when you have multiple Enchondroma tumours, you can have up to a 30 per cent chance that they will go on to become malignant enchondroma. Malignant enchondroma acts like a cancer that can grow locally as well as move to other spots in the body. Currently, there are no effective chemotherapy treatments for enchondromas.

I would say that the most important breakthrough in our lab was the identification of the mutation that causes the tumour. Based on our identification, we developed an animal model to study the role of hedgehog signalling in bone growth regulation. This work is important because we gained an understanding of how the different proteins in that signalling pathway regulates the way bones grow.

The second thing that came out of our research was learning how those benign tumours become malignant. We studied secondary genetic changes that make the benign tumours become malignant which helps identify other parts of the pathway that you can block.

Another unexpected discovery involved our animal models. As we observed our animals with benign cartilage tumours, we noticed that they got early osteoarthritis. As everyone ages, the cartilage in your joints degenerates. But, it turns out that when they degenerate, hedgehog signalling is turned on and if you have too much hedgehog signalling you get early arthritis. However, if you block hedgehog signalling you can prevent it from developing. This has opened up an area of understanding and created some potential treatments for osteoarthritis

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy travelling and I am a photography enthusiast. In my orthopaedic office at SickKids the wall is covered in photographs. I also really like backpacking and recently returned from an incredible backpacking expedition in the Grand Canyon. I really love being able to go out where nobody can find me.

6. Why science?
As I mentioned, I initially began my career as an engineer, but I did not like it, so I got into bioengineering research and development which I really liked. When I was deciding what to do with my career, I was thinking that I would either go into a pure research career or I would go to medical school. But, I realized that I loved the idea of asking and answering questions and working in a lab and discovering things, so, I applied to both medical school and graduate school hoping that I could move back to graduate school as a backup if I did not get into medical school. I got into medical school and I followed, for a time, a career in medicine. However, over the years, my love for asking and answering questions began to return, so, I have slowly moved towards more and more research.

7. Why SickKids?
I was initially at SickKids as a clinical fellow and I had an incredible time. One of the things that I learned about SickKids as a clinical fellow was that there are people in orthopaedics here who were doing some really high quality basic science research and high quality clinical research. This spoke to me deeply and reflected exactly what I wanted out of my work.

At SickKids, there is this incredible environment where both research and clinical work is encouraged. So, when a spot opened up at SickKids, I jumped at the opportunity to apply and come back here. I have been incredibly happy ever since.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The most controversial question in my field is: where do the cells that make bone and cartilage come from? The specific type of stem cell, - mesenchymal stem cell, is a type of cell that is believed to be responsible for making bone, cartilage and fatty tissue. However, it is unclear whether or not, in the mesenchymal system that a stem cell really exists. There definitely are cells that can differentiate into other cells but whether a true mesenchymal stem cell exists is, as I said, unclear.

This question is important for cellular therapy as it will help inform what type of cell therapy you should use to be able to make healing better.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
To ask and explore the right questions about things you are passionate about. My advice would be to get the best training, learn how to ask and answer good questions and stay focused and passionate about those questions. The biggest mistake I have seen in research is that people are doing what is convenient rather than what they really want. I think if you stay focused, remain a bit stubborn when asking and answering good questions about what you are passionate about,  you can do anything.

10. What does The Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
The advantage of The Research & Learning Tower is that it is located much closer to where we are doing clinical work. One of the challenges with doing both clinical and scientific work is that currently we are located in a variety of different physical areas. Walking back and forth takes time, bringing samples back and forth takes time, the resources we use are in totally different locations, so having everything in one location will save everyone time.

It is also good to have people who are doing different research in the same location because you can bump into other people in the halls and come up with new insights, new collaborations and new ways to make things work.

November 2011