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About the Institute

Profile of Neil Sweezey

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Dr. Neil Sweezey

Dr. Neil Sweezey, MD

  • Senior Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Respirologist, The Hospital for Sick Children
  • Associate Professor, Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in Toronto and attended the University of Toronto for my undergraduate degree in chemistry and biochemistry. I went to medical school at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and then completed my clinical training in paediatrics, partially at SickKids and partially at the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I trained further in respiratory medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. My research training was with Dr. John Torday at Harvard and with Dr. Martin Post here at SickKids. My first faculty position was at McGill. I returned to SickKids in 1995.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am most interested in the effects of steroid hormones on lung development and on Cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that affects the lungs and other organs.

The steroid hormones that control your blood sugar levels are called glucocorticoids. These hormones are central to the control of lung development and the stimulation of lung maturation around the time of birth. If a pregnant woman looks like she might go into labour prematurely, the only treatment we have that can hasten the maturation of the fetal lung are glucocorticoid hormones. If children are born very prematurely they can develop chronic lung disease and at this time there are few effective treatments. Glucocorticoid hormones have some beneficial effects but the problem is that they have toxic effects on the brain and on the lungs as well. What we are trying to understand through our research is what molecules inside the body respond to glucocorticoid hormones and help to develop the lungs effectively without causing damage to other organs.

When it comes to CF, we are interested in what effects the female hormones - estrogen and progesterone - have on this lung disease. We want to understand why with this particular disease, young ladies do worse than young men.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
This is a hard one because there are so many really great scientists. Even right here at SickKids, there are so many world-class scientists and clinician scientists that it is hard to choose.

In the Atrium this morning, I ran into Dr. Robert Salter. Here is this man who was the Head of Orthopaedic Surgery at SickKids and the Head of Surgery at the University of Toronto for many years. In addition to being an active surgeon, inventing a new surgical procedure, being a major administrator and writing the standard text book for the musculoskeletal system that generations of students have studied in medical school, he had an idea on how to heal cartilage. His idea was called continuous passive motion. He brought it to a research lab and tried it on a rabbit model. It worked in rabbits and eventually also in humans. Now there are millions of children and adults around the world who have benefited from his idea. To me, Dr. Salter is the epitome of a clinician scientist taking an idea from the bench to the bedside for the benefit of people of all ages.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
For me the most important scientific breakthrough of all time was Watson and Crick discovering in 1953 that DNA is the genetic material from which all life is composed.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
The most important thing for me is family. I love spending time with my wife and my kids, who are now mature young adults. I also enjoy listening to classical music, especially Mozart.

6. Why science?
First, I find the natural world fascinating and science is how we find out how the natural world works. Secondly, I am a doctor. I want to help my patients and science is how we are going to help my patients. With science we can find new answers and new cures.

The initial curiosity was something I have had since I was very small, but having become a clinician, I see science as something that helps us understand and deal with the illnesses of children.

7. Why SickKids?
Initially, I dreamt of working here from a very young age when I came to SickKids and was treated here as a patient. I was so impressed that I decided that I wanted to work here when I grew up.

When I became a paediatrician, I was very much impressed by the scientists, the clinician scientists and all the people that I have the opportunity to work with at SickKids. The resources here, both human and non-human resources, are just fantastic. The collegiality and resources of this place make it extremely desirable to work at SickKids.

I’ve been to Boston Children’s and Harvard, I’ve been to McGill and I’ve seen a few other really big centres for child health; SickKids, in my view, ranks right up there with the best of them and to top it all off, it’s in my hometown!

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Perhaps the most controversial topic that currently affects all of health-related research involves finding an appropriate balance between research driven by investigator curiosity and research that funding agencies specifically ask for. For example, funding agencies, like the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), can ask scientists to propose what they want to investigate. On the other side, there are times when funding agencies choose a particular problem and target money towards that area. In those cases they are telling the scientists what to research. I think what is controversial is how to find the appropriate balance between these two approaches.

I would like to think that panels of experts would know what questions need to be studied, but on the other hand we often can’t predict where breakthroughs are going to come from. There are some breakthroughs that just come because scientists have ideas and as they are working on them they stumble across something and because of their expertise they recognize the meaning and the implication of their unexpected results.

September 2009