Coming to British Columbia

January 12, 2016

During the tail end of my PhD in Cambridge, I was contacted by Dr Michael Smith from the University of British Columbia. He explained he was interested in visiting the Sanger Institute, in the UK. Obviously, I was fully aware of the famous Dr Smith—British Columbia’s home grown Nobel Prize winner.

Although, to this day, I am not one hundred percent clear why he contacted me, I was nonetheless delighted to show him around the Sanger Institute. At that time the Institute was bursting at the seams with DNA sequencing activity for the human genome project. It must have been even more fascinating for someone who had helped create the actual field of DNA sequencing back in the 1970s to witness the scale of endeavour.

Dr. Michael Smih

BC’s Rise as a Leader in Genome Sciences

During Dr. Smith’s visit, he told me of the vision that he and another extraordinary scientist, Dr Victor Ling, had to create a genomics centre in Vancouver, specifically at the BC Cancer Agency. This resonated with me. I knew that cancer was essentially a disease of the genome and of all the potential and promise of the pioneering human genome project I believed it would have its most profound impact in understanding the disease.

As Dr. Smith was leaving the Sanger Institute, he told me that he would be in need of someone to lead the bioinformatics activities and encouraged me to apply. I did.

During the interview process, I was made aware of how the BC Cancer Foundation was going to fund the creation of the centre. This was a huge undertaking to raise the $25 million to fund the start of the Genome Science Centre. (GSC) To me, making such a commitment seemed both crazy and bold.  Ultimately, they were just simply ahead of their time. It would be many years before another cancer research institute anywhere in the world would be making such an investment in genomics.

When I accepted the role as head of Bioinformatics, I was further heartened to find that my colleague, Dr Marco Marra, had taken the position of head of sequencing. Dr. Marra and I had been graduate students together in the same lab at Simon Fraser University and we both had a curious passion for genetics.

Exceeding Expectations

The Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) began operations in 1999 with Dr Michael Smith as the director. We rented lab space in Burnaby until space on the third floor of the Vancouver Cancer Centre could be refurbished.

Tragically, Dr. Smith died of cancer in the fall of 2000. In his honour, the GSC became officially named Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.  The provincial government also established the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research in his name. I was especially honoured a few years later to be named as one of their Scholars.

The original goal for the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre was to include a team of approximately twenty five. Now at the beginning of 2016, it stands at over three hundred people, all focusing their efforts on the genetics and genomics of cancer.  In 2013, The GSC was named as one of Canada’s top five research facilities. I am proud to help continue the Dr. Smith’s legacy. I think he would be pleased.