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Profile of John Brumell

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Dr. John Brumell

Dr. John Brumell, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Associate Professor, Institute of Medical Science, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in Stouffville Ontario and I went to the University of Western Ontario for my undergraduate degree. I started studying chemistry and then decided to focus on biochemistry – the chemistry of life. I attended the University of Toronto for graduate school and did my training at SickKids. Following that, my post-doctoral fellowship was at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I was out west for four years before returning to SickKids in 2002.

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now my team and I are studying the interaction between bacteria and human cells. Mainly, we are trying to understand how bacteria can manipulate human cells and cause infection.

On one hand we are looking at the bacterial toxins that are present during disease and trying to figure out how these toxins work. On the other hand, we are also looking at our cellular defenses. We are trying to find out what systems and what mechanisms are used by our cells to combat bacteria and other invaders.

Our cells have a very elaborate set of defenses to recognize and to kill bacteria. Whenever you have successful infections with bacteria, it means the bacteria have evolved strategies to get around these defenses. Like a computer virus that is able to get past antiviral programs and firewalls with a very elaborate strategy, bacteria have strategies that can cause disease.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I think Louis Pasteur was one of the all-time greatest scientists. He was one of the godfathers of microbiology and one of the first scientists to push the concepts of vaccination.

Pasteur invented pasteurization which continues to be used today to treat much of our food. He also developed techniques to study bacteria. Louis Pasteur was a great basic scientist who was able to apply his findings to real life problems affecting the world.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I think that in the last century the biggest breakthrough was Alexander Fleming’s discovery that microbial products could be used to treat infection. The discovery of antibiotics was a huge step in the field of medicine and is one of the top discoveries because of the number of lives that it has saved.

Now, even though there are concerns about antibiotics, we can appreciate that they are constantly saving lives. For example, there are bacteria, like Helicobacter pylori in the stomach, that can cause cancer and today you can use antibiotics to prevent cancer. It’s a fascinating concept.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My wife and I just had our first child, Jake Harrison Brumell, and he is my main interest outside the lab. He’s four months old and he’s as cute as a button. When I come home from work and the dog is wagging her tail, and Jake’s got a big smile on his face all of my troubles just fall away. He’s great and he continues to be a real wonder in our lives. He’s sleeping well and eating well and he loves to play and talk.

I also enjoy biking, hiking and skiing. I love going to Banff for conferences in the winter because it’s the perfect excuse to go to Lake Louise and enjoy the slopes.

6. Why science?
There aren’t any scientists in my family but my parents taught us to pursue a career that we enjoy. If you are successful then the money will follow, but it shouldn’t be your primary motivator.

I had that attitude when I went to university. I wanted to do something I enjoyed and I loved chemistry. My chemistry teacher in high school had a huge impact on my life. When I started university I realized that I was interested in the chemistry of life – biochemistry. The concepts of biochemistry were instantly exciting to me.

Science is a field that is always changing. Concepts can change with one paper and one major discovery can make you change how you look at a disease. In science, if you have an idea you have the chance to test it and see if you are right. The taste for discovery, of working on these giant puzzles, is highly addictive.

7. Why SickKids?
I trained at SickKids during my graduate studies and I found out just how good a research environment it is. It’s a collaborative place where researchers have the freedom to come up with new ideas and pursue them from any angle.

SickKids is also a great place for support. The mentorship program is phenomenal. When a new researcher joins the institute they are paired up with someone more senior who takes them under their wing. There is an attitude of collegiality and a feeling of synergy that you get from being here.

Now I am seeing SickKids from the research side but I have also seen it from the clinical side. When my son was born he had under-developed lungs and the hospital where he was born didn’t recognize it. His breathing was dropping and getting worse and he was on a ventilator. In another couple days it could have gotten pretty dangerous but thankfully he was transferred to SickKids. Within two hours they figured it out. They treated him and he started breathing normally. It was amazing.

It is a special place both clinically and in terms of research with strong interactions between clinicians and researchers. We both respect and appreciate each other and that makes SickKids a unique environment.

Toronto is a great city with lots to offer. My wife and I met in Toronto and love being back here with family and friends.  

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I wouldn’t call it a controversy but maybe a misunderstanding. The question that comes to my mind is: Why can’t we come up with vaccines for certain pathogens like tuberculosis and HIV? We obviously do not understand what these pathogens are doing or how the host immune system is responding or maybe it’s both.

I am sure people have different opinions as to why we don’t understand this, but the point is that we don’t understand. I am not just concerned about these pathogens, which are a big problem, but also how many other pathogens are going to come along that we don’t understand. HIV didn’t exist in 1980 and here it is infecting millions. Yes, we have a treatment but we sure don’t have a cure. We need to keep studying infectious diseases from the perspective of their weapons, their toxins, and our immune responses to them.  

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