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About the Institute

Profile of Amira Klip

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Dr. Amira Klip

Dr. Amira Klip, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Professor, Biochemistry, Paediatrics and Physiology, University of Toronto
  • Canada Research Chair, Cell Biology of Insulin Action

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in Mexico City and I did all of my schooling there, right through to my PhD in Biochemistry. I came to Toronto to do my post-doctoral studies at the University of Toronto because of the renowned medical research. After two years there, I had the opportunity to go to Zurich, Switzerland on a second post-doctoral. We were there for a year and then my husband, Dr. Sergio Grinstein, and I got jobs at SickKids. I was the research associate for Dr. Logan, the head of neurology at the time and it was a blissful experience. After a year, I was asked to write a career award application and SickKids committed to a five-year position for me. Subsequently, every five years since then I have had the opportunity to apply again and obtain a career award and most recently a Canada Research Chair. I have been at SickKids for thirty years.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research has to do with how muscle and fat cells respond to insulin. This is relevant for the control of blood glucose in the body. Disease-wise, it is pertinent to diabetes but it is also pertinent to a lot of physiological conditions such as eating, exercise and insulin resistance. Our work is done largely on cell cultures. I’m a biochemist by training and I have really converted into a cell biologist over the years, which means I work with actual cells and not just test tubes.

Through the Cell Biology Program at SickKids, I have learned the power of cell biology. It’s phenomenal because we can grow muscle cells in dishes and challenge them in the way that the muscle would be challenged in the body and learn valuable lessons. These days we’re studying two or three types of cells together in culture that we know communicate with each other in the body but we haven’t yet determined who the caller is and who is the one answering because there is so much back and forth. In the cultures we can really observe unidirectional communications between cells. All of that is interesting to us in the context of how fats render our muscle cells insulin resistant and how an inflammatory cell, called a macrophage, which colonizes fat cells in obesity, can be recreated in cell culture.

We have a lot of fun devising very basic fundamental cell to cell communication events which we think are a part of this incessant conversation that goes on among tissues in the body. Our approach is to understand these conversations we see in vitro in terms of how they relate to the whole organism. Therefore, we occasionally use animal models; models subjected to high fat diets for example or models in which we have engineered a particular molecule that we can follow. In our case it’s a glucose transporter that we work with in the cells. In the same way we observe this in the cells, we can observe this process in muscle of the animal model we have designed. We can also find out what goes on in the model when they are challenged with high fat diets or different environmental conditions. This research has led us to collaborate with a lot of fascinating scientists. 

3. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough in your field?
I think that in the field of insulin action and carbohydrate control, there are two breakthroughs worth mentioning. One is that transporters that scientist used to think were fixed on the membrane to bring nutrients back to the cells, are actually shuttling back and forth dynamically many times. Simultaneously, I would also highlight the discovery that the insulin receptor, sitting on the membrane is sending an enormous amount of signals inside the cell.  

4. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy classical music very much. I listen to music constantly and attend concerts. We’re regulars at the opera and the symphony. It’s a part of my life. I couldn’t imagine a day without music. It’s hard to choose my favourite composer but one has to start with Bach and Beethoven. I also play the piano for enjoyment.  

5. Why science?
This is a question we are asked a lot by university and high school students so I’ve put some thought into it. I had very good chemistry teachers in high school and I wanted to study chemistry. Then I met this guy who was studying biology, who now happens to be my husband. He made biology sound fascinating so I figured there must be a mix between biology and chemistry and of course I found biochemistry. It was a bit of a trick because there were no established undergraduate programs in Mexico in biochemistry at the time, but a pilot program was starting out that focused on biochemistry research. I was really serendipitously pushed in that direction and I’ve never looked back. From my first day of university I have immersed all my able hours in research and this has always been fascinating for me.   

6. Why SickKids?
When we came to Toronto to do our post-doctoral studies, my husband was at SickKids and I was at the University of Toronto. We really fell in love with Toronto and were hoping that we could find jobs in the city. The whole social and scientific aspect of Toronto and really the whole personality of the city attracted us. So when we were offered jobs at SickKids we thought it was terrific.

I have to say that the overall the experience at SickKids has been incomparable to anything that I’ve heard from colleagues elsewhere. Sergio and I have both been able to participate in leadership positions here. I was an Associate Chief of Research for about 16 years and I created the Research Training Centre. When you have the opportunity to really participate in the decision-making and the direction of an institution you really feel involved and therefore love the institution.

A big part of why we came to Toronto and stayed in Toronto has to do with the leadership of the Research Institute. Dr. Aser Rothstein was the director of research when we first came to SickKids. He was an incredible mentor and visionary figure for research and we got to know him on a more personal level as well. The second person I want to mention is Dr. Manual Buchwald. When he was the chief of research, I worked with him as an associate chief. He was a strong leader and he made sure the institute had a very organized structure.

Over the years, we had many opportunities to pursue our careers elsewhere, in Canada and abroad. It was always a no brainer that we would stay put because of what SickKids represents.

7. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of them is whether the dynamic glucose transporter proteins have additional ways of being regulated. We know that they go back and forth on the membrane but are they themselves open or closed, loud or silent? This has been very controversial.

A bigger question is around the interplay of the environment and genes in determining insulin resistance and its progression to diabetes. We know that both the environment and genetics are factors but clearly Type 2 diabetes is becoming an epidemic and affecting children. What is happening so quickly that is affecting the whole world? This is not a simple one answer like too much sedentary life and too many high fat or high sugar foods. Obviously these are factors but we need to know more about how this affects us at a molecular level. This is a big question and this is controversial because we just don’t know the answer. 

8. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. It’s an amazing novel with a lot of bizarre turns and passionate characters. It is set in the southern United States and it’s the story of friendships from high school that prevail through adult life.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You need to be prepared for a change in the structure of how academia supports and values research. I think the days of doing science as a single investigator with his/her group are probably challenged and not sustainable. I think it may be necessary to convince the whole structure of research support to value science for the output and to sustain a team effort as opposed to the individual investigator. The resources for science are limited and it’s painful to see so many amazing scientists with incredible ideas that are not getting funding. Therefore, I think what we value has to change and the infrastructure has to change. I don’t think it’s just a government problem. I don’t have the answer, but I hope that future scientists will come up with ideas to maintain science in a different model and keep science fun.   

10. What does The Research and Learning Tower mean to you?
I’m happy that it’s going up and that everyone will be together. I will be delighted to be closer to colleagues that are in different buildings now. The new building will bring opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate with colleagues that are now ‘removed’ from each other.

March 2011

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