Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of James Rutka

Staff profile photo
Dr. James Rutka

By: Hannah Sunderani

Dr. James Rutka, MD, PHD, FRCSC

  • Neurosurgeon, Neurosurgery
  • Co-director & Principal Investigator, The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre;
  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in Toronto and stayed here until I finished high school. I then moved to Kingston for medical school at Queens University. I did my internship at McGill University and then entered the University of Toronto Neurosurgery Training Program in 1982. My training took me to San Francisco where I spent three years at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) getting my PhD in Experimental Pathology. After my neurosurgical residency finished in 1989, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in molecular immunology research at Juntendo University, Tokyo. In 1990 I came back to Toronto to join the Department of Surgery faculty at the University of Toronto and the Division of Paediatric Neurosurgery at SickKids.

I’ve been studying the molecular biology of paediatric brain tumours since I started at SickKids and at that time I was the only one pursuing this type of research here. Over time, however, I was able to recruit other research associates, research fellows and neurosurgeons to join me. A short time later, we envisioned starting a brain tumour research centre. Fortunately, in 1997 our proposal caught the interest of the Labatt Family, who were looking to invest their philanthropic funds. With their generous donation we established the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre (BTRC) in 1997. The Centre has grown enormously since that time; we now have almost 100 people studying the problem of brain tumours. The discoveries and impact we have made in the field since opening the BTRC have been extremely rewarding.

2. What are you researching right now?
I have two main projects in the laboratory right now. The first is on a paediatric brain tumour type called medulloblastoma, which is the most common malignant brain tumour in children. It has a very poor prognosis and almost 40 per cent of children with this category of tumour succumb from their disease. Therefore, there is a desperate need to find better treatments for this tumour type.

In the lab, we have identified a pathway called the hepatocyte growth factor pathway. This pathway is overactive in medulloblastoma which allows the tumour to thrive. By identifying this pathway we have been able to develop novel treatments to overcome the tumour’s fast growth rate and its side effects including stopping the tumour’s ability to metastasize (spread) to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. These new treatments are looking very promising in our experimental models and our goal is to translate these studies to paediatric patients. We have been working on this project for five years.

The second research project is a complex study that deals with the invasion of another tumour type in the brain known as astrocytoma, which is a highly malignant tumour both in children and adults. Unlike other tumours, which grow fairly discreet as one nodule or mass, astrocytoma grows with fingerlike projections into the brain and therefore is almost impossible to remove surgically. As a result, we rely on other types of treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation therapy, to combat the tumour. Unfortunately, even these treatments are often unsuccessful because of the difficulties getting the drugs to the invading tumour cells when using chemotherapy, or in trying to estimate where the tumour has spread when using radiation. Our team is developing novel strategies to overcome these difficulties by looking at the blood brain barrier, which works to protect the brain against unknown substances (including the delivery of certain chemotherapies). By using magnetic resonance image-guided focused ultrasound, we can open the blood brain barrier and deliver novel therapeutics to the invading brain tumour cells. We then use nano-particle technologies to treat these brain tumours and overcome their highly invasive tendencies. We do this because if we can overcome the invading tumour cells then we can treat the main tumour mass with focal therapies that will be more effective. This is a major project that I have been working on since I first started here in 1990.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I think one of my all-time favourite scientists and role model is Judah Folkman. He was a surgeon and is remembered for his research on tumour angiogenesis , which is a complex reaction that occurs between cancer cells and their blood vessels. He believed that in tumour angiogenesis, the tumour recruits blood vessels to nourish itself so it can survive and thrive. Dr. Folkman studied the factors that led to this angiogenic process and determined that it was caused by a few factors that were secreted by the tumour, causing the blood vessels to feed the tumour. He hypothesized that if you block the blood flow to the tumour then you could theoretically “starve it,” since the tumour wouldn’t have the nutrients and elements needed to continue to grow.

Folkman was a paediatric surgeon working in the Harvard system in Boston. He worked for many years to discover the factors that lead to tumour angiogenisis. He was the first to promote this concept, which then allowed others to begin their research and fully identify the various factors that were involved. He was a role model for me because he worked very hard for many years to prove his hypothesis regardless of public opinion. Folkman was actually criticized for his idea and many people did not believe it to be true. However, he stuck to his research interests, which I really admire, and he proved the scientific community wrong through his findings. Once angiogenic factors were identified and purified he was looked at as a true pioneer.

I knew of Folkman’s work before I became a faculty neurosurgeon here, back in the 1980s. I actually had the great opportunity to meet him in the mid 80s. He was very kind and generous in sharing his ideas with me. Folkman was not at all concerned about sharing his novel ideas long before they were published, which is sometimes difficult for scientists because they worry about others taking their ideas and publishing them as their own. To find someone like Judah Folkman who was very open about sharing ideas, collaborating with others and talking about science before things were published was a refreshing change. It is a model that I try to follow in my career.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
It’s so hard to pin-point just one; but if I had to, I would say that it was the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. In 1954, Watson and Crick published their seminal two page article in the scientific journal Nature, which led to the known molecular structure of DNA. This single discovery was a pivotal moment, which started what I like to call the “molecular biology revolution.” Prior to this discovery, nobody knew what the DNA structure looked like and from this point forward scientists knew that DNA would be highly important in understanding how genetics function and work. This discovery allowed for a number of other major discoveries such as the discovery of RNA and the central dogma of molecular biology, which explains the flow of genetic information in the biological system.

Watson and Crick’s discovery also had a major impact on my particular field of research in analyzing cancer development, because scientists could now compare what the DNA structure looked like in cancerous cells versus normal cells. Their discovery became very important in predicting which cancers progress rapidly and which ones are very difficult to treat. Before their discovery we didn’t have any genetic information about cancers and how they developed, or how they grew and how to treat them. Our knowledge was very crude and rudimentary; I look at those days as the “dark ages” of cancer treatment. There were some attempts at using drugs to treat cancers, but their success rates were very limited. We also knew that radiation treatment could be used, but regulating radiation treatment for cancer was difficult. There are also side-effects to radiation therapy that couldn’t be avoided at the time because we didn’t understand enough about the treatment. The field of oncology, which is the study of cancer and cancer treatment, really developed after the 50s when it was clear that the chemotherapy agents had a very direct effect on the DNA, and on the various pathways that came out of DNA that causes abnormal cell division.

Our research findings wouldn’t have been possible without Watson and Crick’s important scientific breakthrough. We have been able to use the information to study normal cell systems, abnormal cell systems, cancer systems and more. Thankfully, we have come a long way since the “dark ages,” but there is still a long way to go with many of the cancer systems including some of the rare cancer types.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I am also a paediatric neurosurgeon at SickKids and I really enjoy doing microneurosurgery. I still perform quite a lot of surgery on children who have brain tumours, as well as epilepsy surgery. I find this job very stimulating, particularly because I get to be involved first hand with the children and families that come to SickKids for care. It never ceases to amaze me how strong our young patients are, and how they come through challenges and treatments so well. I also run the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto and I just became the editor-in-chief at the Journal of Neurosurgery, which is the largest journal for neurosurgery in the world.

On the more personal side I love to spend time with my family. I’ve been married for 34 years and I have three children. They are all grown up now, but we still like to take family trips abroad together. We recently came back from a trip to Iceland, which was fantastic! My children are talented artists and I admire their work. I must say that they inherited their artistic talents from my wife; she is a graduate in the Arts with a degree in linguistics, and she also worked in the film industry producing and editing films. My kids were profoundly influenced by her and pursued their passion for the Arts. Two of my kids are very interested in film; one of my daughters recently graduated from the Tisch School of Film at New York University. My son graduated from McGill University where he studied music. He is a very fine jazz pianist and composer. Now he’s working in the film industry in Los Angeles. My daughter is a ballerina. She danced at Canada’s National Ballet School, in Toronto and also danced in England for a couple years. She is back in Toronto now, and has decided to attend the University of British Columbia.

As for my personal hobbies, I like to stay fit by running, cycling, rollerblading, playing hockey and squash. I also like to play the piano. I’ve played piano for many years now and I really enjoy playing classical music. My favourite composers to play are Schuman, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach and Chopin.

6. Why science?
As a young child I was always interested in science. In my spare time I would read about science in Scientific American Magazine, TIME Magazine and other science columns. I also really enjoyed science and math in university. Initially, I went into chemical engineering for my undergraduate degree at Princeton University in New Jersey. I knew at that point in my life that I wanted a career in medicine and I was interested in being a doctor because I liked the notion of using science to help people. However, getting into medical school was very competitive and I wasn’t sure if I would get accepted. Therefore, I started in chemical engineering because I was also very interested in math and science, and I knew that if I didn’t get accepted into medical school I would still be happy as a chemical engineer.

Fortunately I did get accepted into medical school, and I was able to pursue my passion for medicine at Queen’s University. My chemical engineering degree also proved to be very useful in steering me towards a science career and ultimately running my own laboratory investigating paediatric brain tumours. I feel very fortunate to be working here as a surgeon and scientist at SickKids, and to be running my own laboratory.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was looking for a neurosurgery position, I looked at three different locations; two of them were in the United States and the third was a position in Toronto with the Department of Surgery at U of T and in the Division of Paediatric Neurosurgery at SickKids. My wife and I weighed the benefits and disadvantages of each location and we decided to bank our careers on Toronto. I had previously done some training at SickKids as a resident and I knew some of the neurosurgeons that were here at the time. These were outstanding paediatric neurosurgeons and pioneers in their field. They were setting the stage worldwide for their innovative techniques. I was interested in working alongside them because I had learned a lot from them as a resident, and I knew that they would be fantastic mentors.

I also knew that SickKids has a tremendous worldwide reputation and I thought it would be a very prestigious organization to be a part of. It has been 23 years now since I started here and looking back on my career I feel very fortunate to be here. I’ve had wonderful support from all departments and divisions including the Research Institute, the Department of Surgery, administration and support staff; whose accomplishments and care for our patients are admirable. I don’t think that there is a better place to be. I truly hope I can finish my career here at SickKids and look back on all the years with tremendous satisfaction.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the most controversial questions in my field is whether we can take the discoveries from the research we’re doing on the molecular biology of brain tumours and translate it into effective clinical treatments for children. Our research has taught us a lot about genetics now; we know what causes the genetic origins of paediatric brain tumours and what the targets are. The question we are now asking is if we can effectively develop new treatments, drugs or other agents, that can overcome aggressiveness and the poor prognosis of some of these brain tumours.

We have been following this goal for many years now and we’re heading in the right direction, but we’re not quite there yet. We are still trying to overcome the challenges between our research discoveries and translating them to the patient through a process called “personalized medicine” for each given child. Our hope is that through this personalized treatment method we can perform a genetic and molecular analysis of the tumour and personalize the therapy for the patient. We think that this goal is achievable, but it’s still a controversial question because it hasn’t been proven yet and it’s a novel concept.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book called Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg was the COO of Facebook, and in her book she asks the question why women don’t have as many leadership opportunities in organizations as men. She herself has had an illustrious career, but she was really struck by the fact that women can’t seem to advance as far as men do in the workplace. In the book she really works to tease out this concern and encourages women to “lean in” to the workplace. The book was on the best seller list, and it’s a very good read! I highly recommend it to everyone.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Follow your dreams and follow your passion; I say this to all of my students. If your passion is science then try to get yourself educated in the best way possible. It’s best to go to university to get an undergraduate degree followed by a post graduate degree, either a Masters or PhD. Then try to get a post-doctoral fellowship in an area that interests you as it will help pave the way for your career. Being a scientist is hard work, but if you have the passion for it then it’s possible that your dreams will come true.

Also remember that there are ups and downs in science. You feel on top of the world when you score a big paper in a high impact journal, or get a grant from a peer-reviewed agency like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); and that is fantastic. However, you should also be prepared for the times when your research doesn’t pan out and you have to rethink your strategy or if you submit a grant or paper and it gets rejected. There are certainly ups and downs in science, but they are life learning experiences. As long as you stay focused and follow your passion then you will come out stronger for it.

11.  What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
Personally, it gives our brain tumour research centre a great opportunity to move into a brand new tower in a brand new space. We are all very excited to be together under one roof and to be closer to SickKids; since we are currently at the MaRS building. I think that putting like-minded people together in the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning, which allows for interaction within and between floors, will increase collaboration. The pace of science should escalate and our discoveries should be enhanced as a result. I know that this building has been desired for some time now, and I’m so glad that it has become a reality.

September 2013

Scientific profile