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Vision across disciplines
It was more than fitting that when the provincial government acknowledged Dr. Emil Skamene with one of its highest honours -- the Prix de Québec -- it was for his accomplishments in both the fields of research and administration.
PHOTO: Marc-André Grenier
"Multidisciplinary" isn't just a catchword with Skamene -- it's how he approaches his entire career.
Skamene's Prix de Québec is only the latest in a long list of awards that the director of the McGill University Health Centre Research Institute has on his resumé. That he hung the certificate he received on November 20 directly across from his desk indicates that he doesn't see it as just another piece of paper.
"This is an interesting award," says Skamene. "It's a recognition from the society of Quebec of its top people."
Skamene's research is itself inherently multidisciplinary. His work uses cutting-edge genetic research to look for treatments of very old killers -- infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or leprosy.
Although almost entirely absent from North America as a cause of death, infectious diseases like these are still big killers in less-developed parts of the world. Traditionally, these diseases have been treated through antibiotics, but Skamene wanted to go deeper than that.
Some people, no matter what their level of exposure to a given disease, seem to have a built-in resistance to it. Skamene's research looks at what genes are responsible for that resistance, and conversely, which are responsible for others' susceptibility to disease.
Skamene's research group contains geneticists, statisticians, epidemiologists and ethicists.
Although he acknowledges that finding genetic tools to fight micro-organisms whose genes adapt over years, or even months, while ours change only over generations is a challenge, he holds high hopes for this approach to fighting disease.
"It should lead to quite different ways of treating diseases, as well as to be able to individualize the treatment, diagnosis and prognosis," he says.
Skamene isn't saying that these developments are around the corner. The recent completion of the Human Genome project is a good start -- "It gave us the alphabet, now we are learning how to read it."
The work is important, however -- the recent anthrax scares in the U.S. and the increasingly global travel patterns that introduced the West Nile virus to North America, mean that populations worldwide need to be concerned about contagions unheard of in previous decades.
Skamene's multidisciplinary approach to his own research is what he thinks led the management of the MUHC to select him to coordinate the research efforts of the five merging hospitals.
Consisting of several hundred researchers and support staff, the process is slowly moving from the virtual coordination to the actual physical merging that will occur when the "superhospital" is completed within a few years.
Skamene likes to strike down borders that keep different disciplines apart. His multidisciplinary approach will see the MUHC's disparate research programs harmonized into thirteen "axes" which will interact with one another.
Clinical, technical, medical and research goals will no longer work separately from one another -- Skamene envisions a matrix model, with the various competencies interacting with one another to combine strengths.
"There's a big advantage to the medical healthcare approach over scientists working in isolation on their individual projects," says Skamene.