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About the Institute

Profile of Jim Hu

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Dr. Jim Hu

By: Elissa Hanna

Dr. Jim Hu, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology and Department of Paediatrics
    University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in China, in a southern province called Hunan which translates to “south of the lake.” I did my undergraduate studies in China, went to the United States for my PhD and graduated from Harvard University in biology. Then, I came to SickKids and did my post-doctoral training with the former Director of SickKids Research Institute, James D. Friesen. All my training is in gene expression – I studied how genes are expressed and regulated. Since my laboratory was established I have focused on gene therapy and gene regulation.       

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now the major research direction for my lab is gene therapy. Over the past two decades there has been major progress with research on the human genome, but I think research on the therapeutic element of genes is far behind. In terms of gene therapy, only a couple of cases have been very successful. It’s kind of interesting because, conceptually, gene therapy should be straightforward – you can easily make a gene, put a healthy copy in the patient’s cell and it should correct the disease. But technically, it is very challenging to target diseases in cells. Fortunately, with better tools now created, such as novel vectors, people can do a much better job in terms of gene therapy.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I would probably pick Fred Sanger, a biochemist from the United Kingdom, because he’s the kind of person who sets his goal and achieves it. For example, many years ago, people didn’t know the structure and sequence of proteins. He’s the guy who figured out how to determine the amino acid sequence of a protein, which played a major role later on in interpreting genetic information flow when people discovered DNA. But that’s not all. After studying proteins for a while he asked himself: what’s the biggest challenge? He then determined that he wanted to study DNA structure and determine how to sequence DNA. And again, he succeeded in that. I don’t know how many people have won the Nobel Prize twice, but he won it twice! I like that he set up his goals, and worked hard to achieve them. I really admire his ideas and his ambition.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I think in terms of the biological field I would credit Watson and Crick, who discovered DNA. Before them, nobody knew what the genetic material of humans was. Because they discovered that DNA was the genetic material, many scientists became highly successful because they knew to work with DNA to answer their questions. Now we can determine the sequence of genomes and can even sequence it in a few days, which is very important with regards to diseases.

Many people think that when you submit a research proposal you have to come up with a good hypothesis. But I always say that after DNA was discovered, and we learned how genetic material can be transmitted from DNA to RNA to proteins, many things are really not hypotheses, but are actually reasonable because of this discovery.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My major interests are sports and music, and I enjoy travelling. When I was very young, my parents lived in the Chinese countryside but my grandfather lived in the city, so I got to travel more than other kids. I was lucky because in those days people could not afford to travel. Before I went to college I travelled quite a bit in China and it was an eye-opening experience. In the 1970s, my hometown was probably above average in China in terms of economy, but I had no idea. I thought maybe my hometown was a little disadvantaged and that other parts of the country must be more successful in terms of farm productivity. But when I travelled all the way to the southern tip of China, I found that my hometown was much better in terms of food supply.

6. Why science?
I was always very curious about different things and liked to learn how things worked. When I was young, we had a clock at home and I tried to open it to see how it worked! I found that by studying science, I could come up with my own ideas and explore them. It’s a very rewarding field.

7. Why SickKids?
There are many advantages to being at SickKids. First of all, my colleagues are very nice. We help each other in terms of applying for funding, which is a really positive thing. Also, SickKids has a very good reputation. We are here to take care of kids and do our best for the hospital. It’s a privilege to work in this type of institution.

Another thing is that when you work in biological science you study very basic scientific things, and here you can work with physicians who can apply your work on the clinical side. When you work on the basic side of science you help clinicians, and clinicians help you. It’s a great situation. I collaborate with many clinicians.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The most controversial question in terms of gene therapy is that some people don’t think that gene therapy will be a major therapeutic solution in health care. The reason for that is that people rushed into clinical trials in the early phases of gene therapy research. For example, when people were researching cystic fibrosis gene therapy, they started clinical trials even when they didn’t have the proper vehicles and tools to insert genes, and tried it without understanding the challenges. Of course, they didn’t succeed. After all the failures in the field, people don’t think that gene therapy will work to treat patients.

But in reality, there are a few recent cases that have succeeded. Though we are still in the very early stages, there are now protocols for how people can get treated, for example, there is now a gene therapy protocol for a disease called Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). However, LCA is easier to treat because it’s relatively easy to target cells and you don’t need a large vector to insert the gene into the cell.

With other diseases, it’s very difficult to target cells and put in the correct gene. We are trying to create bigger vectors for genes that require larger vehicles for insertion. In my opinion gene therapy will succeed but it will not have a universal method to treat all genetic diseases. Each disease will have a different method.

9. What are you reading right now?
Most of the stuff I read focuses on science. I am trying to look for new improvements in terms of gene therapy approaches. Some people are currently working on a way of repairing genes rather than replacing them. You can actually design certain enzymes and nuclei and send those into the cell, where they provide a sort of template for repair. But you still need a way to deliver this into the cell, so we are working on ways of doing that.  I don’t really read things outside of science – there’s just not enough time.

The problem for me is that I get distracted. If I watch a movie, I watch it and finish it. Because I like to focus on my work, if I picked up a book I probably couldn’t finish it. But every few weeks I scan every top journal in the field to be aware of progress in different research, which can help me direct my research in the lab.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think the only thing people need to do is work hard. When people get to grad school, they are smart but so is everyone else. The only thing that you need to get ahead of your competitors is to dedicate your time. Some people can get frustrated over the long periods required for research, but working in science is a privilege. If people are afraid of putting in the time, it’s really hard to succeed – you won’t accumulate the experience or skills you need. You also need to read a lot to come up with your own scientific ideas.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It means a lot. We are very anxious to move to the new building. When we move, all labs will come together and it will increase collaboration. The way it is now, you don’t have much of a chance to talk to people in other labs. Being able to easily interact with other people will enhance our productivity. It’ll be great in terms of sharing equipment you wouldn’t be able to share otherwise. It will also be good for students, who will be able to learn from other labs.

April 2013

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