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Profile of Philip Sherman

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Dr. Philip Sherman

Dr. Philip Sherman, MD, FRCP(C)

  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Staff Gastroenterologist, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, The Hospital for Sick Children
  • Professor, Departments of Paediatrics, Microbiology (Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology) and Dentistry, University of Toronto

By: Katrina King

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I am a prairie boy, born in Edmonton, Alberta. I went to medical school at the University of Calgary. After deciding that Alberta was too cold, I moved to San Francisco to do my paediatric training. I then did post-doctoral training in gastroenterology research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. Knowing that it is a world renowned centre, I came to The Hospital for Sick Children to do my clinical training in paediatric gastroenterology and laboratory research, becoming a faculty member in 1984. Time has just flown by so fast since then. It feels like only yesterday that I started my work here!

2. What are you researching right now?
In the past, I have done patient-based research and population-based studies, including work on Helicobacter pylori infection in children that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I have also done work on inflammatory bowel disease in children, including studies that were published in the British Medical Journal. My research now focuses on laboratory-based endeavors, looking at the interactive roles between bacteria and the host. My team and I assess both harmful microbes that cause human disease, such as colitis, and beneficial microbes called probiotics. These probiotics can be employed to promote human health, and to prevent and treat infection-induced and stress-induced intestinal disorders.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I am a clinician-scientist – a rare breed in today’s research world. Nonetheless, SickKids is home to quite a few eminent clinician-scientists who work at the interface between basic biomedical problems, patients and populations. The intent is to improve child health by bringing fundamental advancements to the bedsides of children and to bring new knowledge to the delivery of paediatric health care.

My favourite clinician-scientists fit this mold. They have made fundamental discoveries, which have changed the world’s way of thinking. For example, Nobel Laureates, Drs. Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein, worked as a team on collaborative research to better understand cholesterol metabolism. Their work impacted human health in a very big way by promoting new ways to reduce high lipid levels, which reduces the risk of a variety of cardiovascular diseases.

Dr. Barry J. Marshall is another clinician-scientist who, as a trainee in Australia under the supervision of Dr. Robin Warren, went against current thinking. At the time, it was believed that excess stomach acid was the cause of peptic ulcers but Warren discovered the bacterial cause of peptic ulcer disease. As a result of that study, Marshall & Warren received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2005. After this important discovery in adults, we were able to study if what Marshall and Warren had described in adults was also true in children. Our team at SickKids was one of the first groups in the world involved in looking at the role of Helicobacter pylori in children as an underlying cause of ulcer disease in the paediatric population. Working with clinician-scientists collaborators in Microbiology, Dr. Mohamed Karmali and Pathology, Dr. Ernest Cutz, we were at the leading edge of these discoveries because of the supportive clinical research enterprise available at SickKids.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
There is an article, called the Centennial paper, published in the Journal of Infectious Disease and written by Dr. Martin Blaser. Dr. Blaser wrote that the biggest breakthrough in infectious diseases in the 20th century was done right here at SickKids spearheaded by Dr. Mohamed Karmali, a clinician-scientist working in the Microbiology department. Dr. Karmali and his team showed that as a result of ingesting unpasteurized apple cider contaminated with a toxin-producing bacterium, children developed kidney failure. This seminal paper was the first to demonstrate a link between a bacteria (called E. coli) infection in the gut and acute kidney failure, referred to as the haemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). This is an important observation, because HUS is the most common cause of acute renal failure in children. This discovery is an example of how greater understanding about the underlying causes of a disease can shift current thinking and have a major impact on the prevention and management of the condition. .

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have another job that keeps me busy and stimulated. I am currently the Scientific Director of the Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism, and Diabetes for CIHR. This provides a wonderful opportunity to work on something other than my own research activities, by contributing to the development of Canadian health research policy for the future.

Outside of work, I am a big believer in trying to maintain a reasonable work-life balance. I have three wonderful, grown children and a new granddaughter. I am very proud of my kids and my wife, but not so proud of my other passion, golf, for which I suffer from a serious lack of any natural talent. Golf is something totally separate from work, allowing a pleasurable escape from daily pressures.

6. Why science?
As a trainee in paediatrics, I quickly learned that there are many unanswered questions in the field of medicine. I felt that one could contribute by adding a tiny piece of understanding into the complex jigsaw puzzle that characterizes human health and disease. A career in health sciences is an extremely rewarding experience. It is intellectually stimulating and allows one to work in a diverse environment with trainees who come from various backgrounds. Not only does this make for a fascinating career, it makes life stimulating. I look forward to coming to work every day, because I am surrounded by people who are passionate and interested in what they do.

7. Why SickKids?
I wanted to train and work at the best place possible. I went to train in San Francisco because I thought it was the best place to learn how to become an academic paediatrician. I then thought about going to Harvard Medical School in Boston for subspecialty training but was advised by a mentor there that, as a Canadian, I should consider looking north of the border at the valuable opportunities available at The Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto. This was excellent advice that I have never regretted. The Department of Paediatrics and the SickKids Research Institute attracted me and have kept me here over the years. It is an exceptional institution helping clinicians who are interested in conducting research to flourish. SickKids is a wonderful institution, because it permits the opportunity to collaborate with very intelligent and highly motivated people from a variety of backgrounds who hold a spectrum of perspectives. I also love the international flavour. There are trainees and faculty from every corner of the world working at SickKids. This is a huge strength for SickKids.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The controversy that my research laboratory is interested in is whether or not we should use probiotics in the clinical setting, what kind of probiotics to employ, how often to use them, how much to use, whether a single organism or a mixture of organisms is better, and understanding just how these probiotics work. These are big unknowns for which the public really wants answers. There have been huge advances in this field, because there are new techniques to evaluate the bacteria present on various mucosal surfaces of our bodies. These molecular-genetic techniques are revolutionizing our understanding of the human microbiome, which is comprised of the germs that live in health and harmony with us. Dysregulation of this harmony, called dysbiosis, appears to cause a variety of human diseases which might be improved, at least to some degree, by considering the use of probiotics. This revolution in the understanding of the roles of microbes in health and disease, and their potential use as a medical intervention, is a rapidly unfolding and highly exciting current experience.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am a passionate reader of medical journals. Since I try to keep up with the advances in health research, every week, I read the New England Journal of Medicine. What I consider a required reading for all clinician-scientists!

I am also passionate about reading outside the health research field. I love reading mystery novels that have nothing to do with medicine. Henning Mankell is one of my favorite authors. Currently, I’m reading his book entitled The Man from Beijing.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
My advice, and the advice I was given, is that you must be passionate about what you do no matter what the field of endeavour. You have to love what you do, and coming to work shouldn’t feel like a job. If you are doing research simply to advance your career or because someone else wants you to do so, then think again. If you are engaged in research, continue to do so because you really feel that it will make a difference in improving human knowledge and enhancing the health outcomes of Canadians. In this kind of setting, it’s a real joy to come to work every day!

11. What does the Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
The Research & Learning Tower is a huge opportunity, bringing the SickKids research community together under a single physical umbrella. Despite the electronic super highway, face-to-face communication is still a very important human activity. We are already collaborative and integrative but being housed together in one physical unit will make the potential for interdisciplinary research activities even better in the future.

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