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About the Institute

Profile of Hans-Michael Dosch

Dr. Hans-Michael Dosch

Dr. Hans-Michael Dosch, MD, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health Program
  • Professor, Departments of Immunology and Paediatrics, U of T

Where are you from? Where did you study?
I was born in a small town in Germany, Frankenberg, near Marburg an der Lahn, my future alma mater. After high school I joined the army and had a great time, even making 1st Lieutenant. Despite the excitement of Army life, a career in academia called to me. I enrolled in Phillip’s University Medical School, Marburg, and found a lab that would take me as volunteer even before I rented an apartment. This city, with its great castle on a steep mountain in the middle of town, is a beautiful, historic place with many ancient pubs that still serve the lovely local beer.

Marburg is one of the oldest universities in Germany. A center of free thought, it was here where Martin Luther posted his 95 ‘theses’, kick-starting Reformation in the early 1500’s. My girlfriend lived in the very same Great-house where Luther stayed – and that influence has always stayed with me – I still love history and free thought.

I pursued my medical (MD) as well as PhD (doctor medicinae) studies, essentially in parallel streams. My first five papers dealt with human T-cell proliferation although we didn’t know at the time that T-cells even existed. We’re still doing T-cell studies today, measuring autoreactivity in diabetes and MS trials.

What are you researching right now?
Early in my career I was more focused on cancer research and developed a predictive diagnostic for Nasopharyngeal Cancer (NPC) as well as the first genomic map of the human immunoglobulin v-Region. Under the guiding influence of Professor Julio Martin (former SickKids diabetes researcher), I gradually moved my research focus away from Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), cancer and B-cell diversity fields to focus more on diabetes.

Since about 1990, Type 1 Diabetes held our focus with studies that led to diabetes prevention in mice. Together with two colleagues, we entered into the translation process, a decade-long struggle to design and finance TRIGR (2002-2017), the first primary diabetes prevention trial, now running on three continents. Continuing to translate basic mouse immunology to human disease, my last decade remained focused on Type 1 Diabetes and its cousin autoimmune disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Establishing strong collaborations at SickKids and elsewhere, we generated new mechanistic understanding in Type 1 Diabetes and MS, with direct therapeutic promise (e.g. Winer et al, Nature Medicine, 2003, Razavi et al, Cell 2006). Our unexpected discovery of autoimmune-like elements in Type 2 Diabetes (Winer et al., Nature Medicine, 2009 in press) recently expanded our interest, again having direct therapeutic implications.

Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I have always admired Albert Einstein. He had so much insight, vision and his science was absolute, without compromise. [Dr. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.]

What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In my opinion, the genome project and all of its offshoots are critical milestones in biomedical science. This research has fundamentally affected our understanding and daily research practice in many ways. We now have the ability to know, manipulate and eventually understand the genome of entire organisms. Our first knock-out (KO) mouse took more than four years to generate – a first at SickKids. Today, things are, well, just so different that it’s mind boggling.

In terms of how this breakthrough has impacted my own research, probably the biggest example is the stepwise discovery of critical neuronal elements in diabetes pathoetiology. In this process, my young collaborator, Dr. Mike Salter (Program Head, Neurosciences & Mental Health Program), became my new boss when I moved to neuroscience. Translating our data to human disease is our first priority, where we expect major clinical impact in both forms of Diabetes. Towards this goal, we spent the last two years, verifying our data and working with people in Europe and North America, examining DNA from more than 8,000 patients and discovering a genetic peculiarity quite similar to that in diabetes-prone mice. It is very exciting.

Without the genome project and associated expertise and instrumentation, this work could have taken easily more than 10 years, instead of two.

What are your major interests outside the lab?
I had one consuming hobby for much of my life – yacht racing. I had a 40-foot racing yacht at the National Yacht Club. Racing usually involving the whole lab – including yachting trips to the Caribbean and Australia. Sailing became a useful tool for my scientific pursuits; organizing sailing trips with colleagues from abroad cemented many international collaborations.

Family and the increasing pace of our research slowly put sailing to rest and I donated the boat to a then new charity that takes disabled and at-risk kids out on the water – the ideal class room. This became a great success and has inspired others to donate their boats. However, my oldest son, 13, has developed sailing interests, and my youngest, two-years, is learning to swim. I suspect there will be more sailing in my near future.

Why science?
Well, according to my parents, I was always quite curious – no toy survived my determination to find out how it worked. I was told that when I walked into my first class at elementary school, I assured the principal that I would be a doctor. That never changed.

Being a scientist has given me enormous freedom and satisfaction, I have never missed clinical practice, but clinical concerns and impact still rank paramount in my motivation and goals.

Why SickKids?
I arrived here a bit by accident. After medical school, I went into medicine and then haematology – Immunology was not born yet – in and around Marburg University area. A career in academia loomed in my future. As is the custom in most countries, such a career included a fellowship abroad. I was all set to go to Australia – mecca for immunologists at the time – but an accident put me out of commission for about eight months.

With Australia no longer an option, several of my teachers suggested Toronto, where Dr. Hardy Cinader had just founded one of the first ever Immunology Institutes, harbinger of what today is one of the largest Immunology Departments in North America.

In 1974, things were really developing fast here. I chose to stay at SickKids, because it seemed to offer a truly unique mix between basic science and clinical medicine. I became involved in a procedure to prevent death in rare patients with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), by transplantation of (cultured) human thymus – the place where the immune system goes to school. For a time, Toronto became an international centre for treating this disease. It was during that time that I performed the first thymus transplant in Europe. Today, marrow transplants do a better job at curing the disease, but this was an exciting time – translating basic lab science directly to the patient.

I stayed on another year, and by the third year I was offered a faculty position and I took it, never really looking back. I am still here, working on the same floor as that day I arrived.

What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The role of obesity in autoimmune diseases and cancer, and is there autoimmunity in obesity?

May 2009

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