Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Robert Jankov

Staff profile photo
Dr. Robert Jankov

Dr. Robert Jankov, MB, BS, PhD, FRACP

  • Senior Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Staff Physician – Clinician Scientist, Neonatology
  • Associate Professor, University of Toronto
    Departments of Paediatrics and Physiology
  • Member - Richard Lewar/Heart and Stroke Centre of Excellence
  • Chair, Clinician-Scientist Training Program, Research Training Centre

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from Melbourne, Australia. I attended medical school at the University of Melbourne and I did my paediatric residency at the Royal Children’s Hospital, also in Melbourne. I did the first part of my neonatology training in Melbourne as well, and then in 1996 I came to Toronto to do a fellowship in neonatology at SickKids, Mount Sinai and Women’s College Hospital. The plan was to finish up my training and head back to Australia to begin my career. However, I ended up staying in Toronto to do a PhD in Physiology at the University of Toronto and in 2003 I took a faculty position, initially at Sunnybrook, and then I came back to SickKids at the beginning of last year.       

2. What are you researching right now?
In the premature population we often see the development of the lung getting sidelined or even stopped all together. As these babies age, their lung function becomes less and less adequate. The babies that we see with chronic lung disease are the most immature babies born at 28 weeks gestation or less. Until about 20 years ago, these babies didn’t survive. But now, we’re seeing them grow up into their late high school, early university years and we’re realizing that they have a lot of issues and abnormalities. We don’t really know what’s going to happen to them when they get into their thirties and forties, especially if they smoke. For all we know, they’ll have a life that’s greatly affected or even shortened by this disease. This was the focus of my work as a PhD student.

When I started my own lab, I began focusing on the blood vessels in the lung, particularly high blood pressure in the lung caused from chronic lung disease. This is called pulmonary hypertension. It seems that the babies that have the highest blood pressure in their lungs are the ones who are the most likely to die very young. I believe that if we can find ways to treat that high blood pressure, then we’ll be able to prolong their lives before we discover how to grow new lungs, which is ultimately what these babies need. This issue is not just facing premature babies; we see a lot of babies in the newborn period with high blood pressure in the lung. It is more common in the newborn period than any other time of life.

My research is predominantly in pre-clinical models and in cell culture and I’m particularly interested in what makes the blood vessels react abnormally and cause the blood pressure to rise. More recently, I’ve become interested in how the heart responds to high blood pressure in the lung. When a baby has pulmonary hypertension, the right chamber of their heart that pumps blood into the lungs works less efficiently and we aren’t sure how to prevent that. We used to think that because the heart was working harder to push blood through greater resistance it would get tired and ultimately give up. What we’ve very recently realized, is that lowering the blood pressure in the lung isn’t always enough to make the heart better. Even if you’re able to lower the blood pressure, heart failure can still progress. This is a new pathway for the field, especially in the newborn period where we know even less about what goes on in the heart than we do in adults and in older children. It’s a very exciting area with lots of questions to be answered because if we can make the heart stronger or reverse the abnormalities that have occurred, then I think we can greatly improve outcomes.

One of my students is currently working on a clinical project looking at very novel methods of assessing heart function. In collaboration with the echocardiography lab at SickKids, we are developing new tools to measure heart functioning in babies. This will make this research a lot easier because we will be able to see what effects new treatments might have.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
There is one person that comes to mind and I don’t think a lot of people have heard of him. His name is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis and he was a Hungarian obstetrician in the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, a lot of women were dying following childbirth because of infection. Women would develop a fever and then they would die a couple of days after delivering their baby. We know now that many of them were dying of bacterial infection that was actually given to them by their doctors who were going directly from the autopsy room to the delivery room and carrying all the germs on their hands that had caused the death of the previous mothers they had treated. 

Dr. Semmelweis didn’t know anything about bacteria or transmissibility of infection, but he realized that this was what was going on. The clue was that in hospitals where doctors were not going back and forth from the delivery room to the autopsy room, or in places where midwives were delivering babies, women weren’t dying of this condition, called puerperal sepsis. Therefore, Dr. Semmelweis set up a wash basin with hand disinfectant solution at the entrance to the delivery room and he forced all the doctors to use it before delivering babies. Almost immediately this completely wiped out the incidence of this disease, which was killing a third to a half of the mothers that contracted it. It was phenomenal.

Dr. Semmelweis managed to make a difference in his own hospital in Budapest, Hungary but the wisdom of his approach was not generally realized until 20 or 30 years later. At that time, the knowledge was not available to be able to connect the dots, but he made observations and implemented a very simple intervention that essentially wiped out a disease.   

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
A Dutch scientist named Dr. Anton Van Leeuwenhoek invented the first microscopes in the late 1600s. Since I’m very interested in the structure of the lung and we often use microscopes to examine lung structure, I particularly admire that breakthrough. I’ve always been interested in photography and the microscope was a natural extension from that.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I really enjoy cooking and I’ve taken a few courses at George Brown College to get a bit more knowledge. There is nothing I like more than going to the market in the morning and picking up some fresh ingredients and figuring out something to cook with them. I also enjoy photography. The late afternoon fall light has that gorgeous yellow hue so you can get some really great photos. I’m also working on learning French because being bilingual is a distinct advantage in Canada.

6. Why science?
In Australia, the training you get as a physician is all clinical. The clinician-scientist model does not really exist there. When I came to Toronto to finish my training I thought I’d take the opportunity to see what it would be like to work in a lab. I worked with Dr. Keith Tanswell and I got hooked. I had never worked with pre-clinical models before; I’d never asked a basic science question. He gave me a lot of freedom to work on my own ideas. I enjoyed being able to ask a question and answer it relatively quickly in pre-clinical models before translation to the clinic.

Now, I’m head of the clinician-scientist training program at SickKids in the Research Training Centre. I understand the challenges in training a clinician in science. I have a perspective that will be able to help other people who are where I was ten years ago. 

7. Why SickKids?
In my opinion SickKids is the best children’s hospital in the world. It’s a place that embraces and supports the clinician-scientist. There is a wealth of things that go on at SickKids and it is a fun place to work.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
In the case of chronic lung disease in babies, we have always believed that the main reason that these babies have high blood pressure is because they don’t have enough lung, meaning they have less blood vessels and therefore less channels for the blood to go through. However, we have done some work recently that suggests that while that might be playing a role, that’s not the whole answer. The blood vessels are also abnormal and they stay constricted. 

In our pre-clinical research we have discovered that we can undo that constriction with a new class of drugs. These drugs act on a particular pathway in pre-clinical models and return blood pressure in the lung to normal right away. We haven’t established yet whether that is the case in humans. If it is, then we really have something that we can reverse without the need to grow new lungs.

9. What are you reading right now?
I like political science a lot and I’m reading a biography of Charles de Gaulle by Jonathan Fenby. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to read but I do love biographies, especially when they are related to the Second World War and politics of the twentieth century.

I recently attended a talk at the Munk Centre at U of T by a retired faculty member who has just written a biography of Eisenhower – I’m going to read that next. I love being a part of U of T – there’s just so much going on.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I’d say once you’ve chosen the area of research that interests you it is important to ask around and find out what the big questions are in the field. Once you’ve settled on a question, it is important to work in the best environment that you can. If you have those two things in place, then nothing is going to stop you.

One of the reasons I love working with young trainees in the clinician-scientist program is because I have the opportunity to provide advice and point them in the right direction to who they should talk to and what direction they should take. Science is not the easiest career but it is certainly a very rewarding one. I think a lot of people are put off by the uncertainty of funding and other issues that all scientists face but I certainly try and point people to the positive side.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It will be the first time that I have all my work in one place and that’s going to be great. All the incredible researchers that are currently dispersed between the different SickKids buildings will be in one place.

It will be nice and new and it is exciting and impressive. When people from out of town see this enormous building they are so impressed that it is all for research.

December 2012

View scientific profile »»