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About the Institute

Profile of Rae Yeung

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Dr. Rae Yeung

Dr. Rae Yeung, MD, PhD, FRCPC

  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Staff Physician, Rheumatology
  • Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, Immunology and the Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in Hong Kong, lived in England and then I moved to Canada when I was very young and grew up in Burlington, Ontario. I did my training here at SickKids, my PhD at the Ontario Cancer Institute and then I came back to SickKids to be on staff as a paediatric rheumatologist.  

2. What are you researching right now?
The theme of my research program is the role of immune activation in autoimmune diseases like Kawasaki disease and juvenile arthritis. Kawasaki disease is an inflammation of the blood vessels including the coronary arteries, the blood vessels which supply blood to the heart. It usually affects young children under the age of five. Unfortunately, when the coronary artery gets damaged in such young children, there are long-term consequences such as increased risk for blockage of the coronary arteries which may lead to heart attacks. Kawasaki disease is the most common cause of acquired heart disease in Canada and SickKids is one of the largest centres in the world for treating patients with this disease. We see between 100 and 150 new patients per year and we have followed over 2,000 patients in our clinics. At SickKids, we have a really strong partnership between basic research and clinical research and patient care.

When children first develop Kawasaki disease, their symptoms include a prolonged fever, a rash, red lips, a red tongue, red eyes, big lymph nodes and swollen red hands and feet. These symptoms are pretty non-specific – many kids who get sick get a fever and a rash – so unfortunately having these symptoms is not specific and there is no diagnostic test. All these symptoms are classic signs of inflammation. Rheumatologists look after patients suffering from inflammation, so we look after Kawasaki disease patients together with the general paediatricians and cardiologists. I’m particularly interested in studying Kawasaki disease because my PhD was in immunology and I studied immune activation by a family of microbial proteins called superantigens, implicated as one of the triggers in Kawasaki disease.

My lab is now looking at immune activation and how this immune response is sustained and is persistent in Kawasaki disease and in many autoimmune diseases. When people without an autoimmune disease have an infection, our immune system fights it until the infection is gone. However, in a person with an autoimmune disease, their immune system doesn’t turn off and continues to fight and starts fighting certain areas of the body, like the coronary artery in someone who has Kawasaki disease. I study this process in kids with the disease and also in the lab using cellular and molecular tools to answer mechanistic questions. I ask questions like: What is actually attacking the coronary artery and how can we turn it off? In my lab we’ve developed animal models in order to look at different molecular and cellular targets and try to turn them off. Ideally we want to come up with a diagnostic test for Kawasaki disease. We want something very precise. You could use the term precision medicine or personalized medicine,, where we can actually understand at the cellular and molecular level what the disease actually is.

In my lab, we are also looking at immune activation in childhood arthritis. I want to find the biologic profile, the unique molecular and cellular details, that can distinguish the child who will get arthritis and gets better right away with just one drug versus the child who has total body inflammation and has arthritis that needs to be treated much more aggressively. Personalized medicine or precision medicine can identify at a biologic level the immune profile that we have to target so that we can treat these kids appropriately.

3. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like to hang out with my children. I have two kids and we really enjoy travelling together. We go as a family to many different places around the world to broaden our horizons. We enjoy skiing, biking, cruising and just hanging out.

4. Why science?
Science is amazing. It’s great to be a doctor but in science you get to ask the why and the how. In medicine you fix things, but until you actually know the mechanism, the why and the how behind it, you can’t really get to the root of the problem.

The other reason I like science is because you can explore all your big ideas. My lab members tease me because I often get my best ideas when I’m skiing. When I’m really high up, just about to launch myself down the hill, there is this moment of clarity and in this moment I can come up with amazing ideas. Then, I can come to work and see where these ideas can actually go because we have the funding to do it, we have the staff to do it and we have the technology to do it. It’s one of the most rewarding things to be able to do that because it allows you to take a creative idea and bring it to fruition.

5. Why SickKids?
I love working with kids! As a physician, seeing sick people can be depressing, but I find kids so resilient. When you are examining kids, treating kids, you have to keep it light and fun and that involves playing and laughing with them.

It’s amazing how these kids can just bounce right back! When I go to the cardiac ward and see patients after open heart surgery and they’re up, they’re resilient. It is unbelievably rewarding to look after kids because you know you make a difference.   

6. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
We have made a lot of technological breakthroughs in genetics research but there are a lot of ethical dilemmas between the technology of what we’re able to do and what we can currently translate to patient care.

7. What are you reading right now?
I am reading the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson because I’m a huge Apple fan. It is revealing when you read about somebody and what drives them and what inspires them. He was such an interesting, weird and brilliant man.

8. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Don’t lose your dreams. It may be a long journey to get to the career you want, and there will be ups and downs in this journey but never forget the big picture and your dream. Often people just think about additional years of schooling but ultimately you have to think about the end result – a career of doing what you love. I get to wake up every day and I want to come to work. I get to launch myself off that ski slope and think of an idea and then work to bring it to reality. Getting here was a long journey for me, 16 years of university, but it was totally worth it!

9. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I think it’s fantastic. It’s a new opportunity. I think that whenever you have the opportunity to have daily interaction with different individuals, it just grows novel research ideas at a more grassroots level. From what I understand the whole thing will be open concept and I really like that. It’s not just about PIs interacting with other PIs; it’s all our students interacting.

March 2012

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