AI and mRNA draw full house to Gairdner lecture

The 2023 Gairdner National Program Lecture brought two pioneering researchers and Canada International Gairdner Award laureates, Demis Hassabis (2023) and Lynne Maquat (2015) to McGill on October 23rd 2023, to deliver public lectures.
Image by Joni Dufour.

Every year, McGill hosts the Gairdner National Lecture Series program and invites laureates of the Gairdner Foundation’s awards to give a public lecture. These awards are among Canada’s most prestigious honours. This year, McGill welcomed a current and past laureate to give talks in their respective fields of expertise.

As the crowd entered the Neuro and made its way to the Jeanne Timmins amphitheater, the majority came with pen and paper or laptops to make sure not to miss any of the wisdom the laureates shared during their lectures. Opening remarks were given by Associate Vice-President for Innovation + Partnerships at McGill, Benoit Boulet.

“McGill is immensely proud to host this lecture series, which celebrates biomedical research of the highest caliber, as well as the Gairdner Foundation’s public outreach and educational activities across Canada,” said Associate Vice-Principal for Innovation + Partnerships at McGill, Benoit Boulet in his opening remarks.

The floor was then passed to Sommer Wedlock, executive Vice-Presisdent at the Gairdner Foundation who spoke of the organization’s aim to inspire the next generation of innovators and introduced the speakers.

“You are in for a real treat with the Laureates who are here today,” she asserted.

She then handed the floor to Dr. Demis Hassabis who delivered his lecture, “Using AI to accelerate Health Research.”

Benefits and risks of AI

He spoke of his life’s work in AI, which began with using deep reinforcement learning methods to Atari 2600 games in 2013, and then lead to the creation of his spin-off Isomorphic Labs in 2021 which seeks to revolutionize drug discovery with the power of AI.

“We started Isomorphic Labs to reimagine the drug discovery process. We want to take it further, try to push forward in biochemistry, revolutionize the drug discovery process by using computational and AI methods,” explained Hassabis.

“There are incredible benefits to come from AI in the next few years, this comes with great risks that we are cognisant of. AI has the potential to help solve our greatest challenges, but it has to be used responsibly, safely and for the benefit of everyone,” he continued.

Clarifying the field of mRNA decay

Following this talk, Dr. Lynne Maquat delivered her lecture, “Nonsense Mediated mRNA in Human Health and Disease,” which she dedicated to her late colleague, esteemed McGill Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Oncology, Jerry Pelletier.

She spoke of her work in the discovery of nonsense mediated mRNA decay (NMD), and mentioned the many contributions of her colleagues in her lecture.

She discussed her lab’s more recent work on Fragile X syndrome, which is the leading cause of intellectual disability and autism but remains poorly understood.

“There is work on Fragile X syndrome which we have just started to get into, we got into this by looking for other NMD affectors. We published a paper which found that loss of the fragile X syndrome protein FMRP results in misregulation of nonsense-mediated mRNA decay.”

“The field is a bit of a mess so I feel good contribution to its clarification. And with that there is a postdoc opening in my lab!” she joked.

Ask the experts

Once the laureates delivered their respective lectures, the floor was opened to a Q&A session.

Benoit Boulet asked Maquat about what lessons other aspiring scientists might learn from her journey, as in her career she’s demonstrated courage to go against the grain of conventional wisdom even when at times the value of her science was questioned.

“I have to say it was really scary for me, but I couldn’t find another explanation for the data. When one gets data that is controversial, it is important not to over interpret the data, always think of what the simplest explanation is,” she replied.

“And, I think that perseverance and hanging out with people who believe in what you are doing is important,” she added.

Some questions were also asked by the audience members. One asked Hassabis about what skills should be learned in order to be able to contribute to AI in the next ten or twenty years.

“In terms of skills, the only thing that we know for sure is that there is going to be a lot of change. A few years ago, I would have said that coding was important to know but now it's more metaprogramming that is important, and prompt engineering. So, I think the most important skill is to be adaptable,” answered Hassabis.

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