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About the Institute

Profile of David Malkin

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Dr. David Malkin

Dr. David Malkin, MD, FRCP (C), FAAP, LMCC

  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Associate Chief of Research (Clinical)
  • Senior Staff Oncologist, Haematology/Oncology
  • Professor, Department of Medical Biophysics, School of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I was born in Ottawa and moved to Toronto with my family as a child. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto where I started a bachelor’s degree in arts and science, majoring in physics and microbiology. When I was in university, it was not necessary to complete a full four-year undergraduate degree to go to medical school so after two years I started medical school at U of T.

2. What are you researching right now?
Most of my research is focused on genetic predisposition to cancer, specifically childhood cancer. My team has a particular interest in a rare cancer susceptibility disorder called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. During my post-doctoral training in Boston, we discovered that a specific gene called p53 is mutated in individuals who have this disorder. People who inherit the mutation of this gene have a 75 to 94 per cent chance of developing a whole spectrum of childhood or adult onset cancers.

We are now interested in trying to identify what other genetic changes exist in these individuals that may determine what types of cancer they will develop and the age at which they will develop cancer. With this, we can create a better approach to early detection and clinical surveillance using a combination of molecular genetic studies and novel clinical diagnostic tests. We are able to translate the basic science component of this work done in the lab with the patient-based clinical research done through the cancer genetics program where we are enrolling families into studies, collaborating with many oncologists and geneticists and doing genetic counseling.

Another part of my research focuses on a childhood cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. It is a muscle tumour. Cancer develops because of abnormalities of proteins or genes that normally act either like a gas pedal (oncogene) or a brake (tumour suppressor gene); when the ‘gas pedal’ oncogene is ‘on’ the cancer is likely to grow whereas when a ‘brake pedal’ is on the cancer slows down or even stops growing. In rhabdomyosarcoma, a protein called ILK behaves in a unique manner since it can behave as either the gas pedal or the brake pedal. The reason that this is important is because it shows that this protein and maybe others out there can have a dual function, which is rare in cancer. It may then be possible to develop new drugs to take advantage of this dual function.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Albert Einstein is my favourite scientist and I even have an Einstein action figure to prove it. As a youngster I was fascinated by the whole concept of relativity even though I probably didn’t really understand it very much.

Now that I am a scientist, I think that Albert Einstein is one of the most remarkable examples of an individual who thought outside the box. He challenged the dogma of the day in science and also had a profound philosophy of what was good and right in the world. I think the reason that I still look to him as a favourite scientist is that he thought about the world beyond his scientific work. I love doing my science and I love working as a paediatric oncologist but I also think it is important to figure out what our footprint is going to be beyond our work. I think Albert Einstein truly believed that his footprint was far greater than his theory of relativity.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In my mind, Copernicus and Galileo basically demonstrating that the earth was just a tiny little speck in a huge vast universe is the biggest discovery to date. Galileo proved that it wasn’t that everything was rotating around the earth as was believed in his time, but that the earth was revolving around the sun. I think this goes hand in hand with my fascination with Einstein and his big picture, out of the box thinking.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Family is number one on my list. As a clinician scientist I am extraordinarily busy at work so ensuring that I am well-grounded with family and finding time to spend with them is very important. I coach my son’s hockey team and have done so for the past few years. I also love reading historical biographies and I have a keen interest for music especially playing the piano and the violin – though I haven’t played in quite some time.

6. Why science?
In high school I was interested in all different subjects from science and math to English and other languages. However, I had a greater aptitude for science than I did for the arts. I could really only see myself making a career out of science. The other reason is simple: great teachers. I had some amazing professors in university, especially in physics and in genetics and medicine and I believe that fueled my love for science. Once I got started on the science path there was no turning back.

7. Why SickKids?
In my opinion, it is the most comprehensive children’s hospital in the world. I had the opportunity to train at some other world class institutions, but what I have found here and continue to find is that there’s a culture of integration between medicine and science which is second to none. Other places have great research strengths or great strengths in clinical work. SickKids seems to have been able to figure out how to maintain a world class research institute and a world class clinical hospital and have them live quite well together. That is something that I value since I enjoy being able to participate at SickKids both as a clinician and as a researcher.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The biggest controversy is whether or not cancer is fundamentally a genetic disease. I believe that it is, but a lot of people would argue the opposite. The closer attention we pay as clinicians to the histories of our patients, the more potentially important genetic links we discover. Also, now we can look for genes that can predict the age people may develop cancer or determine what type of cancer they might develop. The big issue is whether or not it’s appropriate. There are lots of legal, social and ethical questions around genetic testing in children at risk of developing cancer. The controversies lie in the how – figuring out how to make this genetic knowledge clinically meaningful for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients.

January 2010

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