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Profile of Felix Ratjen

Photo of Dr Felix Ratjen
Dr. Felix Ratjen

Dr. Felix Ratjen, MD, FRCP(C)

  • Senior Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Division Chief, Respiratory Medicine
  • H.E. Seller’s Chair in Cystic Fibrosis
  • Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
It’s always difficult to say where I’m from but I was born in Germany and lived most of my life there. I studied both in Frankfurt, Germany at the University and I did part of my studies in the United States at Harvard University, in Boston.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research is primarily clinical and my major interest is in cystic fibrosis (CF). I do what we call “translational research.” What that means in practice is that I’m conducting a lot of clinical studies but I’m also working on finding new ways of assessing lung disease in CF. New therapies are being developed for CF, which is a lung disease, and in an effort to bring those therapies to the patients more quickly, we have to find ways of assessing them in patients more effectively.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I would say Dr. Jere Mead because I trained with him. He was a physiologist at Harvard School of Public Health. He was both an excellent researcher and a great teacher. He was very supportive for people early in their career. One of the things that he did was challenge any structure of current knowledge. By not accepting that the current evidence was strong enough, he would often come to new and unconventional conclusions and that was very refreshing. I learned a lot from him.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
Well, that is very subjective, but in my view, the genetic revolution has really helped us to clarify the genetic origin of disease processes, which has been key in taking us to the next level of research. There’s quite a time delay between defining the genetic origins of diseases and subsequently turning this into something that might be helpful to patients.

Cystic fibrosis, the area that I’m working in, is actually a good example of this. When the gene was cloned here at SickKids about 20 years ago, it was thought that it would probably take a relatively short period of time to figure out this disease. Twenty years later, we’re still not there but have now learned so much about the underlying cellular processes of the disease. This has led to many new therapies that are likely going to have a major impact in the next five to ten years. I think that will likely be the case for other diseases as well. CF may be a little bit further ahead than others but it’s probably going to happen in many, many disease processes.

5. What are you major interests outside the lab?
I’m interested in classical music and I enjoy the opera. Skiing is my favourite sporting activity. I also enjoy traveling and spending time with my family. I have two lovely daughters.

6. Why science?
I chose science because it is exciting. I really enjoy the exhilaration of making new and sometimes unexpected discoveries. You always have to challenge what you thought was true by doing more experiments that will give you new insights into the processes. For me, that’s a never-ending source of enjoyment – getting new data, asking new questions. I think that’s much more rewarding for me than just doing a job on a day-to-day basis and that’s why science is so much fun.

7. Why SickKids?
I chose SickKids because it’s one of the top institutions in the world for CF research. The setup is perfect with a lot of lab-based and clinical research going on. It was the perfect match and I think it has already panned out to be quite successful.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the controversial questions is whether we can use gene therapy to fix CF.  There’s been a lot of research into this as a possible solution but there have also been a lot of hurdles. Right now the majority of people would say that it’s not feasible but they may be wrong. So, that’s certainly one of those controversies that’s important in CF science right now.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading two books. One is about the art collector Heinz Berggruen.The book talks about his personal experience which I found quite insightful. The other book that I’m reading is trying to link philosophy to medical science, so it bridges two areas. It’s by the author Richard David Precht and the title is Who Am I: And If So, How Many?  It’s kind of a strange title but it is very interesting.   

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think the only reason to go into research is because you really love doing it. You have to be excited about it. You have to think that research is fun.

I would advise anyone considering this career path to get involved in research early on because then you can see how stimulating it is and plan ahead to take the right steps to successfully enter into your career.    

11. What does The Research and Learning Tower mean to you?
I believe that the Tower will ensure closer collaborations between people working in different fields at SickKids. I still often find myself meeting new researchers and I have been at SickKids for about six years.

I think having people in one space with closer interactions will certainly help to build new and exciting collaborations.

November 2010

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