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About the Institute

Profile of Berge Minassian

Photo of Berge Minassian
Dr. Berge Minassian

Dr. Berge Minassian, MD

  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Staff Neurologist, Neurology
  • Associate Professor, Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am originally from Lebanon and I went to school at the American University of Beirut and then to medical school at McGill University in Montreal. I did my residency in neurology in Los Angeles at UCLA and after that I came to SickKids and I have been here ever since.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research involves the genetics of various neurological diseases in children including various epilepsy syndromes and a kind of muscular dystrophy.

One of our main research focuses is Lafora Disease. It is a progressive form of neuro-degenerative epilepsy. These children are perfectly normal until about age 14 and then their seizures start. Unlike other epilepsies, it cannot be treated with medications. In the process of increasing seizures patients also develop dementia. The patients’ seizures continue to get worse and they usually pass away within a few years of onset.

Since this disease starts in teenage years, the family has often already had other children. Since this is a genetic disease there is a chance that the other children may have it as well. My lab discovered the genes for this disease and now we are trying to use the gene information to find out exactly what’s going on in the brains of these children and hopefully come up with possible treatments for the disease.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Albert Einstein is the first scientist who comes to mind. He spent endless amounts of time on focused thinking and was not satisfied until he had the answer to his puzzle. I don’t compare myself to Einstein, but I like to think that I work in the same way. I become obsessed with the question at hand and I won’t leave it alone until there is some type of resolution. 

4. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My family is really the major thing in my life right now outside my work. I have two teenagers and I spend a lot of time with them. I also enjoy going to the opera with my wife, listening to music, riding my bike and skiing.

5. Why science?
All my life I have known that I wanted to get involved in science. I grew up in a war-torn country where being a scientist was not seen as a way to make a living. Therefore, I diverted towards medicine as a career but I always knew that in the end I wanted to return to research and now at SickKids I get to do both. I very much enjoy being a physician but I do spend about 70 to 80 per cent of my time doing research.

6. Why SickKids?
I was trained in adult neurology initially, but then I came to SickKids for a fellowship in paediatric epilepsy. I was interested in genetic research and the most interesting genetic findings happen in paediatrics. As soon as I started working with children I knew that I wanted to continue in paediatrics. There is hope and engagement at SickKids that you don’t find anywhere else. There is just a lot more cheer around here.

7. What are you reading right now?
I recently travelled to Gettysburg with my family and I was fascinated by the whole trip. Now, I am reading a documentary on Abraham Lincoln. I’ve always enjoyed history, in particular American Revolutionary history and the Civil War and this book opens the door even wider into that world.

8. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I would say you should only do this if you are a total fanatic about discovery. It is a career that requires a huge amount of effort and sacrifice and we hit a lot of dead ends. Once in a while you will find something really useful and compelling and if you are addicted to discovery and it really excites you then go for it. There is no better feeling than when you do make that discovery.

May 2010