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About the Institute

Profile of Fred Keeley

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Dr. Fred Keeley

Dr. Fred Keeley, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Molecular Medicine
  • Associate Chief, Space, Research Institute
  • Professor, Biochemistry, Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, University of Toronto
  • Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Robert M. Freedom Chair in Cardiovascular Science, Endowed Chairholder

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Winnipeg and that is where I did my undergraduate degree in chemistry and my PhD in pharmacology. I went to England for a couple of years on a post-doctoral fellowship and then I came back to Canada for what was supposed to be a one year fellowship in Toronto at SickKids, and I’ve been here ever since.

2. What are you researching right now?
We’re interested in a protein called elastin. As the name suggests, elastin is responsible for the elasticity of blood vessels and other tissues.

Elastin is an unusual protein in several respects. First, it has these unusual rubber-like properties. Second, it can self-assemble into a polymer and third, unlike most other proteins, it stays with you for your lifetime and never gets renewed. I estimate that the elastin in my aorta has (so far) gone through more than two billion cycles of stretch and recoil, stretch and recoil, every time my heart beats. That makes elastin a really remarkable biomaterial.

We are particularly interested in how the sequence of the protein determines its structure and leads to the unusual rubber-like properties. There is also a lot of interest is using such information to produce biomimetic materials, materials that mimic nature, for use in applications related to regenerative medicine.

3. Who is your all-time favorite scientist, and why?
I don’t know whether I have an all-time favourite scientist. It’s easy to say someone like Newton or Darwin or Watson and Crick. However, their insights did not come out of nowhere. Even they were dependent on the background knowledge of their times. Like all of us, they stood on the shoulders of the scientists that came before them, whose names are mostly forgotten. Their unique ability was to synthesize that information into new ways of understanding how natural processes worked.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
For the biological sciences I think it is the understanding of how genetic material is copied and inherited and how the information carried by DNA gets translated into the sequences of the proteins that play crucial roles both inside and outside of cells. That basic understanding has allowed deep insights into how biological systems work, how development takes place and how and where things can go wrong.

5. What are you major interests outside the lab?
Outside the lab, but still inside the Research Institute, I also wear the hat of the Associate Chief in charge of space and I spend a significant amount of time trying to make sure that scientists have the kind of the facilities that they need to do their research.

I've always been pretty active. I’ve been a runner for over 50 years now, long before it became a popular activity. At that time people would stare and dogs would chase you. I still run back and forth to work on a regular basis, winter and summer. In fact, even on the worst days it’s the most reliable way to commute. Besides that, I am a keen, but not very talented, hockey player and organize a pick-up group here at SickKids. I also really enjoy choral singing and have been involved in that for many years.

6. Why science?
I’ve always been interested in how things work. I think probably what tipped me towards a career in science in the first place was a job as a summer student in a lab after my first-year of university. That gave me my first taste of basic research and the rest is history.    

7. Why SickKids?
I happened to arrive at SickKids at exactly the right time. The Research Institute was just beginning to grow under the direction of Dr. Aser Rothstein and I became part of that growth process. I've never particularly wanted to leave because the atmosphere at SickKids makes it such a great place to work as a scientist. There are all sorts of interesting people doing all sorts of interesting work. Why would you want to go anyplace else?

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the long-standing controversies in the field revolved around how the structure of a protein can make it behave as an elastic material. There have been several theories about that over the years but not a lot of experimental data. Together with colleagues here at SickKids, we think we have made some important contributions to settling that question.

I think there is a new controversy or question brewing though. Polymorphisms are small mutations that everyone has in their DNA and therefore in their proteins. It's part of what makes you unique. Usually these polymorphisms don't have any measurable consequences. However, for a protein that has to endure billions of cycles of stretch and recoil and last you for a lifetime, these polymorphisms may have consequences that determine the long-term durability of the protein. For example, perhaps one person’s elastin might be good for 100 years, while that of another might start to break down after 60 years. 

This is a question that we could never ask before because DNA sequences of elastin from individual humans were not available in large numbers. Now that they are, we can start looking at these polymorphisms to see if it is possible that some of these apparently innocuous changes might have longer-term effects.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished a book called The Atmosphere of Heaven by Mike Jay. It’s a biography of Thomas Beddoes, a physician living in England at the end of the eighteenth century. He established what may be the first publicly-funded clinical research institute, the Pneumatic Institute, to study whether the new gases that were being isolated from air, for example oxygen and nitrogen, could be useful in the treatment of consumption (tuberculosis). As it happened, they also discovered the mind-altering effects of nitrous oxide, hence the title of the book, although it took another 50 years for someone to realize that nitrous oxide could be used as an anaesthetic.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
First, it's important to try not to be too sensitive to criticism because, no matter what you do in your research career, people are going to be critical. Critical examination of your work is part of the game so you shouldn’t take it personally, although of course we all do.

Second, I think there is a lot of pressure on young scientists to keep a narrow focus. However, it's important to resist that as much as possible, since many of the biggest breakthroughs in understanding come from the sidelines and recognizing and responding to those insights is crucial. Now more than ever science is not an individualistic but a collective activity and you need to build relationships with other scientists who have different and complementary expertise. You can’t know everything yourself.

11. What does The Research and Learning Tower mean to you?
For me personally it's the culmination of a long process of trying to meet the needs of successful researchers for modern laboratory space. The Research Institute has been working with the Hospital for more than a decade to make something like this happen and it is really something special for me to be able to look out my lab window and see the building coming up. It’s just great!

It's also a clear and tangible embodiment of the strong commitment that SickKids has to its Research Institute and to the role that research plays in its overall mission.

March 2011

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