Profile of Michael Litvack
Dr. Michael Litvack
- Research Associate, Translational Medicine
1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am what you would define as homegrown. I was born here in Toronto right across the street at Toronto General Hospital. I grew up in Thornhill, Ontario just north of the city and my family has lived in the GTA for nearly a century.
I was a regular patient at SickKids from early childhood up until my teenage years due to some medical health issues. I remember the hospital quite well, even before the Atrium was built in 1993. In terms of my education, I attended York University for my undergraduate degree and completed both my masters and my PhD at the University of Toronto. I trained for my masters at Toronto General Hospital and for my PhD right here at SickKids.
2. What are you researching right now?
I use stem cells to make macrophages, a type of immune cell that can clear and kill bacteria and promote tissue repair. I apply this to lung therapies. We have recently shown that stem cell-derived macrophages that are conditioned to be like lung macrophages can promote recovery and survival in severely compromised airways in an animal model. We are currently developing ways to apply this to anti-microbial therapy, with the hope that this technology could one day be used in situations where antibiotics are no longer effective, such as cystic fibrosis or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections.
3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
This is difficult to answer. I know the most about Albert Einstein because I’ve been reading about him since elementary school, but I learn new things about famous scientists all the time. For example Elie Metchnikoff – who is credited with discovering the macrophage – was somebody I didn’t know about years ago but I now recognize as a pioneer in my field. Marie Curie was a pioneer in every sense of the word and literally gave her life for science and commitment to her work, and because of that, she is one of my favourites. This can also be said for Charles Darwin and Galileo.
There are always scientists whose work and reputation inspires me both for their discoveries and their scientific approach. Although Albert Einstein stands out to me because of his personal historical story, perspective and approach to science. When I was growing up I loved reading and listening to Carl Sagan. He brought the wondrous mysteries of life and the universe to a very appreciable living room conversation – and this really inspired me and still does today.
4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
It is difficult to decide on a single breakthrough, but I can talk about what I think are a few of the most important due to their significant impact on society. Firstly, Edward Jenner’s identification and modulation of the immune system by vaccination has saved more lives than any other discovery.
The second breakthrough that comes to mind is the process of nitrogen fixation by way of ammonia production for fertilizer, which was partially discovered by Fritz Haber. It has saved entire populations from famine, literally billions of lives were saved by this breakthrough in a relatively short period of time. However, I also believe the invention and evolution of the ‘scientific method’ and its progeny was, of course, greatly important. Without it, most (if not all) scientific breakthroughs would be limited to theory or conjecture.
5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I love hockey and I’ve been a goalie since I was a kid. I’m very analytical, I love to watch the game and predict where things are going to go and how fast they are going. I find that is reflected in science because you kind of have to plan where something is going to go and how you’re going to get there. Aside from hockey, I also enjoy cycling, walking and spending time doing these things with my family.
I enjoy the outdoors during any season. In the past, I used to paint on canvas and also enjoyed playing the piano; both of these creative activities are very calming for me. I really love trying new and interesting foods and flavours. I also love to travel and get a taste of the local culture by using public transit systems while I travel.
6. Why science?
I crave the struggle to answer questions. I have never been satisfied with ‘I don’t know’ and I want to perform experiments to get to the bottom of questions that stump me. I appreciate, however, that the more I ask these questions the more I will have unanswered questions. That’s how it should be! I never expect there to be a time when all of my questions are answered. I expect my questions and their answers will bring up new questions for me and others to answer. That’s the thing with science: it never ends… how could it?
7. Why SickKids?
As trainees at SickKids, we got the opportunity to engage in many of the integral stages of scientific inquiry. The collaborative nature of Sickkids supports open-minded trainees, and therefore, open-minded future scientists. With a future of limited resources for Canadian scientists, open-mindedness is a critical asset attained by SickKids trainees.
From a personal perspective, I was a patient at SickKids decades ago, and I appreciate the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’. This way, maybe one day a young child can benefit from research and discoveries I helped develop.
8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I am actually trying to develop my own field of inquiry! The controversy kind of resides with whether or not macrophage replacement therapy will be effective in lung or other diseases. However, given that some of the work I do involves genetic modification, I believe the greatest controversies will arise from the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool; which has the potential to remove or correct inheritable genetic defects and retain the correction through future generations. If that can be done to embryonic stem cells, that could potentially be able to improve or eliminate inheritable genetic diseases from entire populations.
9. What are you reading right now?
I mostly read Dr. Seuss and Curious George books to my young son at home. Recently we got Curious George books that are all about science. One is about George getting his vaccinations and it teaches the reader about them and how they make you stronger! When I had time for pleasure reading, I often enjoyed non-fiction writing about science or society but in recent years I started to enjoy some science fiction books, too. I have always enjoyed reading Tolkien – The Hobbit is my favourite book.
10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Be patient! If you are asking and testing questions that have answers with the potential to garner widespread interest, you must be patient. Always have multiple projects going. Balance work and play. If you play hard, work hard. Take opportunities to go for walks and think about your research and also take opportunities to go for walks and not think about your research. Collaborate. Engage. Be passionate, but not dramatic. Okay, a little drama is okay, but not too much or people will miss your point. Learn how to tell a story and learn how to sell that story.
11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
When you really want to make an impact on society with your science, you need to see the connections. This building offers a more immediate visualization of the web of life. You can stand back and see the connections from a bird’s eye view here. It is a home for productive collaborative research and an excellent use of research funding because of collaborative engagement.