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About the Institute

Profile of Brian Kavanagh

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Dr. Brian Kavanagh

By: Alena Boczek

Dr. Brian Kavanagh, MB, B.Sc., MRCP(I), FRCP(C), FFARCS(I) Hons

  • Senior Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Staff Physician, Critical Care Medicine
  • Professor, Department of Anesthesia, University of Toronto
  • Dr. Geoffrey Barker Chair, Critical Care Medicine

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from Dublin, Ireland which is where I studied medicine. I completed a residency in internal medicine there and then came to Toronto to train in anesthesia. I then went to Stanford and did a fellowship in critical care medicine before I came back to Toronto. I’ve been at SickKids for the last 12 years.

2. What are you researching right now?
We’re doing research in the laboratory and also in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). In the lab, we’re looking at how mechanical ventilators (machines which help patients to breathe) can sometimes cause damage to lungs. We’re studying how that damage occurs, and what can be done to prevent it. In the ICU, we’re studying how these ventilators work best in children. We are trying to understand how they can sometimes affect the blood pressure and circulation in children, as well as the lungs themselves.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
It’s got to be Sir Isaac Newton. He demonstrated such formidable insight and developed some of the most important concepts imaginable with really no experimental data.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
The most important scientific breakthrough in medicine, within this modern era, may be the recognition that stem cells might be used to treat degenerative disease and to hasten recovery.

Stem cells open up a new world in the treatment of disease in every tissue and every organ in the body. What’s missing is a thorough understanding of what controls the stem cells and how they can be made to work best in the body. But, the key discovery was that principle: that they might work. That’s the key.

Now it’s up to people to figure out how to use them, but there are lots of very smart people at SickKids and other institutions who are spending a lot of time (very well-spent time), figuring out those issues.

If I could have a second option, I’d say the discovery of vaccination. Vaccination was discovered by Edward Jenner when he discovered the vaccination for Small Pox. Medicine has come a very long way since then, of course. With some very, very modest interventions, we can save so many lives. These are diseases that kill and maim (and they do so on a massive scale), and they can be prevented. Small pox may be the best example. But, vaccinations being worked on now against Malaria and HIV are phenomenally important. In Critical Care Medicine, we now see few patients suffering from Meningococcal Meningitis – this is because of vaccination.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Outside the lab I have work related interests and non-work related interests.

My work interests include my position as a staff physician in the ICU. That’s pretty interesting and also time consuming. I’m also the Chair of the University Department of Anesthesia and that’s really rewarding but also consumes a whole lot more time.

Outside all of that, I have two daughters and I play a lot of music. I play an instrument called the uilleann pipes, and I play Irish music. Also, I’ve always loved reading. Recently I’ve ‘learned’ how to go to see movies – I seldom used to go before.

6. Why science?
I was very sick with meningitis as a small child and always wanted to be a doctor after that. Although I wasn’t very good in school early on, my grades picked up in high school and then studying medicine became a possibility.

I came to science through medicine. As I was studying medicine in classes and reading articles, I often found that there was a lot I could learn that would allow me to get on with the job of diagnosing and treating people, but there were always lots of unanswered questions.

And the second element, I suppose, was that we understand much of how things work within medicine, but we also clearly have some very, very big gaps in our understanding. So, when you have a medical problem, like a child with serious pneumonia, a brain infection, or a major hemorrhage, you understand to a large extent what to do, but you clearly don’t understand all of it. And, it’s pretty obvious that if you understood more you’d be able to do a better job. It was an appreciation of the need to fill in these knowledge gaps that that drew me into science.

7. Why SickKids?
I worked in the Toronto General Hospital, and I came to SickKids because of the research I did and because of the training I had, and it seemed to be a good fit. I was interested in the lungs, how they got injured, and how you could prevent that. One of the key researchers at the time, Charlie Bryan, a world renowned lung physiologist, Geoff Barker, and Geoff’s successor as chief of Critical Care, Desmond Bohn, all worked at SickKids.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
There are several controversies in critical care. One major controversy is the role of randomized control trials. The challenge is to make the trials as good as they can be, to provide answers that truly advance how patients are cared for. As scientists, we need to get the right balance between basic research and clinical trials. Unfortunately the majority of trials in critical care are negative; this means they tell us, in some way, that things might be equivalent but they don’t really advance the field.

9. What are you reading right now?  
I’ve just finished reading The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It’s a great read about two outlaws who go through (mostly causing) a series of horrific life events and end up settling down and being (somewhat) reasonable people.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I’d make it two pieces of advice. The first: choose the biggest, most important question so that, in some way, no matter what aspect of it you end up studying, it’s always important. This way you never feel that you’re doing research that is entirely incremental. Much of your research will be incremental, but if you’ve latched on to a big, important question that drives you, then what seems like smaller pieces of research will still have absolute importance. In the end that’s what will get you motivated to go into work each day.

The second piece of advice is to get as well trained as you possibly can.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It means whole lot. It means that I work in probably the best children’s hospital in the world, and one of the best of all hospitals in the world. I work in a hospital that recognizes the importance of research, that is, the importance of new knowledge. SickKids recognizes this not just as a gesture, but as a major component of the institution’s infrastructure and development. The tower is physical – you can see it, you can be in it – there’s nothing virtual about it. Everyone knows the importance of advancing knowledge to help sick children, and it’s clear that SickKids is absolutely a world leader in this arena.

March 2012

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