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About the Institute

Profile of James Ellis

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Dr. James Ellis

By Karley Ura

Dr. James Ellis, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology
  • Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto
  • Scientific Co-Director, Ontario Human induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Facility

1. Where are you from/ Where did you study?
I am from Victoria, BC and did my Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology at McGill University. I came to Toronto to do my PhD in transferring genes into cells for gene therapy at Mount Sinai Hospital and I did my post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institute for Postdoctoral Research in London, England working on blood gene therapy.

2. What are you researching right now?
We are working on induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells. These are cells that we make using different types of genes and cells. For example, you can make skin cells in the lab by transferring four genes to “reprogram” them to become like embryonic stem cells. You can essentially make any type of cells from iPS cells. The idea is that you use the iPS cells to make the affected cells from a patient with a disease to see what’s going wrong with those cells, and reveal the disease mechanism.

What we do is “reprogram” skin cells from a child with autism to make iPS cells and then produce nerve cells in a dish. We compare the nerve cells from the child to those from unaffected relatives, mother, father, brother or sister, to see what the differences between them are. Eventually we will be able to use this method to screen drugs on the generated nerve cells and identify effective treatments for the disease.

3. Who is your all- time favourite scientist, and why?
I wasn’t too sure if I should stay on the iPS cell topic, but I do think it’s a rare and incredibly important discovery.  The method to produce iPS cells was discovered by Shinya Yamanaka in Kyoto, Japan. It had always been thought that differentiated somatic cells, like skin cells, would never be able to go backwards in development to make stem cells. Shinya thought he could do it, he managed to do it, and now thousands of labs are using this process. He went against the dogma and discovered how to reprogram iPS cells.

4. In your opinion, what is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?  
Recombinant DNA. Recombinant DNA (rDNA) is a form of artificial DNA that is created by combining two or more sequences that would not normally occur together through the process of gene splicing.  Everything we do in the lab relies on our ability to manipulate DNA, to generate new constructs that we transfer into cells.

5. What are your major interests outside of the lab?
I like wine, I like cycling and of course, travelling.

6. Why science?
My father was a professor of marine biology at the University of Victoria. I already had a lot of exposure to scientific thinking; being around grad students and the lab. I also had a very good high school biology teacher who helped foster that as well.

7. Why SickKids?
Toronto and SickKids have an incredible strength in stem cell research. I was in London doing my postdoctoral fellowship and was interested in gene therapy at the time. I knew that Toronto was a very attractive location to come back to.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The controversial part of my field is the potential of using iPS cells for regenerative medicine. This is where you take the cells you have made from a patient and put them back into the patient to repair injuries or treat disease. By transferring the patient’s own cells, there would be no immune rejection from the body. But the question is how to do this safely as there is a risk that the iPS cells may form tumours.

9. What are you reading?
I am reading a collection of short stories called Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You have to love the subject you’re working on and have a thick skin. Don’t let the disappointing results get to you. Overcome the obstacles. Through persistence and creativity, you may find a scientific discovery and enjoy the exciting results as they arrive.

11. What does the research and learning tower mean to you?
We are in the MaRS building so we already benefit from open space laboratories that help us to communicate with our colleagues here. I look forward to the open communication the tower will bring for everyone at SickKids. We will be reunited with other groups that are not based in MaRS. There will be better integration with the clinicians and researchers in other programs.

March 2011

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