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About the Institute

Profile of Annie Huang

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Dr. Annie Huang

By: Elissa Hanna

Dr. Annie Huang, MD, PhD, FRCPC

  • Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Principal Investigator, Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre
  • Staff Oncologist, Paediatric Brain Tumour Program, Haematology/Oncology
  • Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was originally born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. I moved here after high school and attended the University of Toronto for both graduate and medical school. I did most of my clinical training at SickKids and my post doctoral research training at the Ontario Cancer Institute before starting my job here.       

2. What are you researching right now?
My lab is interested in rare forms of brain tumours. When a child comes in and doesn’t have a textbook diagnosis it’s very difficult to decide how to treat them. This is what motivates our research.

A significant amount of the work we do has been collecting these rare tumours and then using molecular techniques, such as sequencing and profiling, to figure out what they are. The aim is to find something that will reliably diagnose them so that we can study them on a larger scale and learn which treatments work and don’t work. That’s been our major focus, and from those studies we try to develop models for the tumours and try to define new treatments based on the data we collect.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Louis Pasteur. Pasteurization is based on a relatively simple idea and it’s saved lots of lives. I think he was a bit of a genius – the fact that he was able to convince the world to use this single technique is impressive, as it’s very hard to convince the world to do one particular thing. Prior to his discovery there was lots of knowledge regarding how harmful germs could be, and I think he showed us that we can control that by properly processing food. Pasteurization led to related ideas of food hygiene which I think has significantly changed the incidence of death related to food related infections.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
On a global scale, it’s learning how to control infections because they are still the number one cause of death around the world. And for me, infection control is important in treating cancer patients because we give them treatment that will change their immunity. It’s a big problem in trying to treat them – you are not only treating the cancer, but trying to keep the patient from getting infected during treatment. I think the idea of controlling infection and finding things that cause infection has had the greatest global impact.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My two kids, husband and I are really “back-to-nature” sort of people. We do a lot of skiing, skating and canoeing in the summer. We also really enjoy the arts, particularly my daughter and I. She’s very artistic. We’ve had long standing memberships at the art gallery, so we go when we feel like it. We have some very intense conversations about paintings sometimes. I also enjoy instrumental music, but I never had the chance to learn how to play. My daughter is quite a good piano player, so sometimes I turn her on like the radio and ask her to play for me! She'll play my favourite pieces when I get home, and it helps me relax after a long day.

6. Why science?
Since I was very young, I’ve been someone that people would classify as a science geek. I remember when I was in Grade seven or eight, one of our science teachers did an experiment where they cut a leaf in half and let us look at it under a microscope. I was very fascinated by it – the cells looked like little houses to me, with little people living in them! Since then I’ve always liked looking at things under a microscope and seeing how things work on a smaller scale. Science came to me before my fascination with medicine did. I then became fascinated by the science of diseases and that’s how I came to study medicine.

7. Why SickKids?
It’s a great place to work. Everybody at SickKids is very passionate about their work, from the people at the front desk to the people working with patients. I don’t think you will find anybody who doesn’t want to be here. I think that’s important and it’s not always true of other places you go. I think people from all areas of the hospital feel for the children who come in, which makes our lives as clinicians easier because we don’t have to convince anyone of the importance of giving the child the best care, it just happens automatically.

I think that as a scientist it’s an amazing place to work because there’s a very big concentration of superb scientists that I am continually learning from. It’s a place where you can really grow as a scientist. There isn’t anything that anybody in the world does that we don’t do on some scale, so if you wanted to ask very difficult questions you could always find somebody to help you. I think this is a fun place to be; it keeps you on your toes for sure.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I’d have to say that there is a whole new movement in genomic techniques, at least in brain tumours, countering the thought that you can simply use one test to determine a diagnosis. Of course this has to be proven, but over time I think we’ll find that it’s not that simple. In medicine we take into account many factors about a patient before making a diagnosis, and similarly for tumour diagnoses, even if you have specific genetic change it would only be important if you have certain other features. Maybe it would work in the majority of cases but there could be a significant proportion that don’t fit that bill. So I think that we will find that it might not be quite so simple.

9. What are you reading right now?
I like John Irving. A while ago I started a book called the King of Maladies, about the history of cancer, given to me by a friend. It’s a bit of a heavy read so I was taking a break from that by going to my library of John Irving books and going back to the ones I liked. One of them was A Prayer For Owen Meany. It always made me laugh, so I went back to the chapters that I liked. He has a really funny way of telling a story and he always picks very different stories to tell. I love reading his stuff; he’s a very good writer.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You have to love what you do and you have to know what you absolutely can’t stand. In some ways, what you hate is even more important that what you love. If you have a very visceral reaction to something, chances are you’re not going to change that for most of your life. Having passion sustains you. It’s like a marriage: you fall in love initially, but you fall more in love throughout the years. Similarly for your career, you might get excited when you’re young but you need to get even more excited as you go on or it’s very difficult to do it for 30 or 40 years. In a marriage, you can’t remain at the same level of love that you started at as a teenager. Your career is the same; you learn from it and develop your passions at a higher level.

I must say that it’s a very tough job. It requires a lot of passion, dedication, persistence and learning to take criticism. Often times you get more failures than successes. You really have to love it and you really have to believe in it. In the end, I wouldn’t trade my career path for anything else, despite all the challenges. If someone shows me a piece of data, I still get all excited and feel a rush of adrenaline. I think if that stops, then it’s time to buy a flower shop.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I think it will be very nice be in the same building as our clinical colleagues, who we do not necessarily get to work with on a research front. SickKids has never had a dedicated research building and considering how much science goes on here, it has been a long time coming. We've done a lot without dedicated resources so one can imagine what we’ll be able to do with them. For me it’s exciting because we will be in a new building, with people we weren’t with before, and you never know what elevator conversations or coffee line conversations could lead to. There will be opportunities for interaction like that that we didn’t necessarily have before.

April 2013

Scientific profile | Dr. Huang's website