Entre Nous with Dr. David Colman

Entre Nous with Dr. David Colman McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 19, 2007 - Volume 39 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > April 19, 2007 > Entre Nous with Dr. David Colman

Entre Nous with Dr. David Colman, Director, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital

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Dr. David Colman’s interest in science began as early as he can remember. “I’ve never really worked,” he says. “I just took a hobby and made it a career.”

In the recently tabled federal budget, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) was named one of seven Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research that will receive immediate funding from a total allocation of $105 million in 2007-08. The McGill Reporter sat down with the man primarily responsible for the MNI’s windfall, Director, Dr. David Colman, who, in the fall of 2006, took it upon himself to lobby Ottawa for better funding across the board in basic science.

How did the MNI come to be designated as a Centre of Excellence by the federal government?

For quite some time now, many people have realized that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) budget was in danger, but there did not seem to me to be a nationwide concerted lobbying effort to expand that budget. I took it upon myself as director of MNI to see if I could influence the powers that be to substantially increase that budget. First, I went to Ottawa and spoke to the Quebec caucus about the role of basic science and the importance of CIHR in the biomedical field.

Even though I didn’t in any way lobby directly for the MNI, several ministers or their staff expressed interest in coming here to see how government money is spent.

When they arrived, they found 50 extremely talented faculty members, from very experienced researchers to those just embarking on their careers. There is a depth here that you don’t find in many other places. The MNI is a highly competitive place to get into. Two years ago we had 200 applicants for two positions and our two top choices came. These people are some of the best scientists that the world is producing in the field of biomedical health research.

And we’re a model for the integration of health research and clinical practice. We have physicians who can seal off a tiny aneurysm from within an artery, others who are interested in why neurons die in stroke victims, or why the myelin sheath fails in multiple sclerosis patients—all in this building. And what we don’t have in this building we have elsewhere at McGill and what we don’t have at McGill we have in Quebec City or at UdeM. It’s a fantastically strong centre here.

Practically speaking, I think the Conservatives recognized that by giving us this money, we could use our talent to do many more exciting and innovative things. They were very clear to state that this was not meant as a substitute to CIHR money. CIHR seems to be a separate issue for them.

So what did the Conservatives decide on CIHR?

This is a new government and they are practical people but they listen—they did not turn their backs on CIHR, they allocated to it $37 million, more than double the $17 million for last year. Of course, we were asking for $100 million as an increase so that we could fully fund the top grants which CIHR just can’t do now.

You began lobbying in the fall, how demanding was it?

Lobbying and educating the people in power about science and how science works takes a lot of time and you have to correct many misconceptions that the public has through no fault of their own. We, biologists and health researchers, have done a rather poor job in general in explaining what we do.

If you walk down the street and ask people what is Einstein’s equation, most will be able to tell you “E-MC2” and they’ll have a vague idea of what it means. Biomedical research doesn't have anywhere near this level of recognition and I think it’s in part our fault because we haven’t done a good job in explaining how research really works.

One of the biggest success stories in recent years in Canada was how the SARS virus was contained and how it was dealt with as a contagion. The genome was sequenced and procedures to contain it were developed. It proved to be a very effective general strategy that involved Applied Science—no new research, no new technologies. Just effective application of specific technologies to combat a very big and dangerous problem. Canadians are justifiably very proud of this because it served as a model for the rest of the world as to how such a problem should be dealt with.

But that’s not Discovery Science, and that’s a big distinction because there is an enormous pressure to be able to apply—especially nowadays. Emphasizing applied science is fine when you have a lot of basic science. But to take money from basic science and use it for applications is a mistake when you don’t have enough basic science research underway. Farmers don’t eat their seed corn and basic science is our seed corn.

How did you find the whole lobbying experience?

My kids have been watching Dancing with the Stars and I feel a bit like Jerry Springer—every week he was more surprised than anyone that he survived. I managed to get to meet with the ministers in Ottawa and engage them in the problem and I got so much further than I thought I would.

However, I am disappointed that the CIHR and NSERC increases were fairly low, although they were not cut. An increase is an increase, even though it’s not nearly enough to support the basic science effort that we know has to be sustainable in Canada.

But it’s an interesting government. You know, here I am, some Jewish kid from the Bronx, a left-wing liberal, conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and I’m working with Conservatives who I am very impressed with [Laughing]. They listened to me. I can call many of these ministers on their cell phones and they never say “why are you bothering me?” They are always interested in what I have to say—and I’m not a voter! I really get the feeling that they want to do the right thing.

But you need a sustained effort when it comes to lobbying. We have the Royal Society that recognizes some of the best scientists in Canada but I don’t think it is active in lobbying. There is no visible concerted effort as far as I can see.

I wish that there had been a systematic effort amongst all the senior administrators of medical schools across Canada, all the presidents, all the chancellors, all the vice principals of research, all the deans of medicine, all the heads of the nursing and professional schools—all these people who have an interest in the advancement of science within medicine. Had they all come to Ottawa with me or had they gone by themselves hand-in-hand with the manufacturers of the big equipment like brain imaging and cardiovascular equipment—everyone who benefits from CIHR funds—it would have been a much more powerful lobby for CIHR.

How would you answer people who criticized the MNI’s selection as a centre of excellence because there was no peer-review process?

Obviously, I can only speak for the MNI.

During this lobbying period, Dr. Christopher Pack was our poster boy. I wrote about him in the Montreal Gazette and in the MNI bulletin, and the story was picked up by the Globe and Mail. He was a very visible person. Why? Look at his case. He’s a Harvard-trained, extraordinarily talented young scientist who works on how we interpret visual patterns—a very important problem. We get him a bright, shiny new lab with all the equipment he needs, and then he applies to CIHR, which is his only real source of funding for operating this lab on a day-to-day basis—money to hire students and attract post-doctoral fellows. Out of more than 30 grants, he gets the top score in the CIHR review and one of the reviewers wrote that this is the best grant he’s ever seen. But after all that, his budget was cut over 40 percent. As he has said, “They brought me up to Canada to bake a cake and they aren’t giving me all the ingredients.” You get all the sugar you want but they won’t give you the eggs.

And I have a dozen faculty like him, people who are at the top of their game, who’ve been peer-reviewed but they don’t have any way to sustain their laboratory because the CIHR doesn’t have enough money to fund them even to the point where they can do some of the major things they were contracted to do.

So I say to the critics, we’re very fortunate that we now have funds to invest and take the burden off some of the other things the institute does to develop new programs and projects and keep these labs at the top level where we should be, where we have been and where we want to continue to be.

I also heard some disparaging comments about "American-style lobbying arriving in Canada". That certainly doesn’t bother me at all, and I would say during my travels to Ottawa I noted how many of my Canadian peers are extremely adept at American-style lobbying and have been doing it quietly for a long time. You can’t blame the Americans for everything [Laughing].

What will you do with the funds?

We’re certainly going to ask the faculty for their best and brightest ideas. In terms of what programs we can initiate or expand, the MNI has never done anything in an ordinary fashion. We were the first to bring brain imaging machines into Canada, and the first CAT scans and first MRI were all done here. Brain imaging is an extraordinarily important field and a large part of our investment. So we’ll be working with psychiatrists and psychologists to develop new programs and biologists, computer engineers and physicists to develop new uses for brain imaging. There are clinical diagnostic features that we want to develop and expand.

We also want to invest in other programs, like our fledgling program in Neuro-engineering in which we want to produce tiny prosthetic devices that will have direct application in the regeneration and repair of the nervous system.

We also want to explore the similarities in diseases of the spinal cord—motorneuron diseases—in children, and Lou Gehrig’s disease in adults. Even though the MNI doesn’t treat children, there are so many similarities between these two groups of patients that it’s worth having a research program developed around the common features of both sets of diseases.

One of our top priorities will be improving palliative care for neurological patients. Palliative care should be an absolutely essential feature at every hospital but in neurology it has lagged. Isaac Asimov said something to the effect about how “life is pleasant, death is peaceful. It’s the transition that is difficult.” It’s that transition that you want to make as easy as possible. There’s a pastoral component, there are many sorts of therapies—musical therapy, family counseling, physical therapy—all kinds of components that go into that transition period. This will be a research program as well as a clinical program for patients in their final days.

Aside from increased funding how can governments strengthen our knowledge-based society?

We need a sustainable, rational science policy and apportionment of government funds to the basic science efforts across all disciplines that will serve as a model for successive governments. The Conservatives are putting out a science and technology report imminently, which is a step in the right direction.

Within this broad science policy, you need a biomedical research policy and a health policy that is sustainable across governments. We can’t go to Ottawa every year asking for money and not knowing if the budget is going to be cut in half or added to. Not having a sustainable policy that is planned for decades also sends a terrible message and scares off young scientists at the beginning of their careers.

Canada must also recognize that because of the burdens on the U.S. economy of the continuing war effort, which is a black hole for funds, there’s going to be a lot of very talented American scientists who will want to be at great places to work. We have an opportunity to hire fantastic people and secure a pool of talent that is looking for a place to work.

How does a kid from the Bronx get so passionate about science?

My parents were practical people. They’d say “Davy, you like bugs, you like ants? Go to medical school.” [Laughing] Although they encouraged me to become a researcher, they worried that it was a career that was fraught with risk. But I always knew I’d be a scientist. I never questioned it.

I was briefly in medical school for a short time and I really couldn’t stand it. Some of it was fascinating, like human anatomy, biochemistry. But the memorization required for pathology, at least when I took it, which was a long time ago—before the molecular era—I just couldn’t retain it. In one ear and out the other.

I was also already deeply into my research, in the PhD program, so I dropped out of the MD portion because I was too interested in being a scientist. I guess I never really let anything derail me.

The other nice thing is that I’ve been fortunate in being able to study a lot of different things. I’ve attracted talented people with very good ideas and I’ve let them run with them. I’ve never really worked. I just took a hobby and made it into a career.

Did you go to the renowned Bronx High School of Science?

I graduated from Bronx Science in 1965.  It was a humbling experience. Thirteen-year-old math geniuses were graduating high school with me. They were barely bigger than their slide rules.

What are your interests as a researcher?

One thing that we’re doing that is exciting and new is looking at how cancer cells migrate from the primary site to distant sites in the body. We have some mechanisms at the cell surface level that are novel and have not been described before and seem to be very important and that’s something we’re following up on quite aggressively.

I’m also very interested in myelin, the covering of nerves which facilitates the rapid conduction of the nerve impulses. This is what is destroyed in MS. There is a constant effort to repair in MS patients, but it is abortive. It works sometimes, but it’s sporadic. It’s a very mysterious disease. Part of our effort is in trying to find a way to enhance repair.

I’ve been working on myelin for 20 years. During that time we’ve learned so much and much of it has gone into what will be applied science. We know a lot about growth factors and how they influence the development of myelin in cells and these same growth factors function in a lot of other systems. These are practical tools.

What do you do to unwind after a hard day of lobbying or unlocking the mysteries of the nervous system?

I just bought an electric banjo. I’ve been playing banjo on and off for about 30 years.

How does a kid from the Bronx end up picking up the banjo?

I grew up in the era when folk music was quite popular. There were the Weavers, Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio and when I was 8 or 9 I remember vividly Pete Seager playing a tune called “Darling Corey” on the banjo and I was riveted. I said to myself “I have to play that instrument.”

In recent weeks, many major magazines, including Time and MacLean’s, have featured cover stories on the brain. Why this surge in interest?

It’s the last frontier. Asimov called it the most complex structure in the universe and that is pretty accurate, I think. We have trillions of synapses, each one with its own characteristics—different sizes, different shapes, different transmitters. I like to think each synapse is like a segment of a Chuck Close painting. Close is a fascinating artist who creates portraits using thousands of small painted squares. If you stand close, the individual squares don’t mean anything—some have a small blue dot or a yellow circle or something like that. However, they are extraordinarily well-planned and when you step back you see absolutely wonderful portraits of people.

Many people think of synapses like an On/Off switch. Black and white. But it’s not. There are all sorts of attenuating factors and modulatory influences, all kinds of things happen within each one of these trillions of synapses that make each one unique. And when you put them all together you get this Chuck Close portrait.

And I think people are interested in how we react emotionally, and this is exciting to learn about. It used to be that you could just study fear and pain. Now you can study all kinds of emotions. Using these sophisticated brain imaging devices, you can study what are the processes underlying making decisions. Some day, you won’t have to do job interviews anymore, you’ll just hook applicants up to a machine, ask them a set of questions and see how their brain reacts.

So much to learn, so little time?

You can’t accelerate. Putting $100 million into the MNI would be great but I would bank it. You have to wait until fields of development evolve and mature and then you feature them and you work with them. And there are a lot of fields of brain science that are now accessible.

You seem to be very interested in educating people be it politicians—

—or children who are interested in science. Everybody is interested in science as a kid and the miracle is that it isn’t pounded out of you when you hit school.

One of the things I’d like to do with somebody’s money is make an IMAX film on the brain. We’re actually having a meeting with some people next week about putting this together. This would be great as an educational tool for young people.

Do your children share your passion for science?

My daughter came home one day and said she wanted to make a volcano for the school science fair and I said “Miranda, everyone makes a volcano. Why don’t we make a Wilson cloud chamber? It’s a fascinating, simple device that uses dry ice and methanol to make a small cloud inside a container. Under the appropriate circumstances, if a cosmic ray hits it, it leaves a track through the cloud that you can see.” But she had zero interest in the cloud chamber—so she made a volcano, her fifth one. [Laughing]

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