Lifetime achievement - Dr. Lou Siminovitch

Posted: April 1, 2009 In: Portal Newsletter

Dr. Lou Siminovitch

Dr. Lou Siminovitch
(Irma Coucill for the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame)

Every day, thousands of researchers, technicians and biomedical entrepreneurs go to work in the few large city blocks between the University of Toronto and Toronto’s financial district on Bay Street. Many Torontonians still refer to area as “Hospital Row,” a name derived from the five hospitals lining University Avenue, the ten-lane avenue that bisects the neighbourhood, but the street signs bear a different name: “The Discovery District.” The City of Toronto’s new official name recognizes that the neighbourhood is also Canada’s largest research hub and one of the ten largest biomedical clusters in the world.

An aging urban hospital cluster transformed into a place where 20,000 people are involved in research to treat disease and improve health. This is progress – but it is also the result of hard work by people who understood decades ago that research and ideas are the way of the future, and that Ontario has tremendous potential to make advances in biomedical research. These people are legends in Ontario’s research community, but outside of scientific circles, few people realize the tremendous economic and scientific benefits flowing from the Discovery District - if they did, Lou Siminovitch would surely be a household name.

Some of the hospitals along University Avenue are over a century old, but most of the research institutes are much younger. These large, multi-disciplinary hospital-based research institutes interact with departments at the University of Toronto to form a core around which smaller not-for-profit institutes and private-sector companies have flourished. In the past decade, several million square feet of new research space have opened in the Discovery District to accommodate the constant growth of Toronto’s biomedical research community.

In the decades before the Discovery District was called the Discovery District, Siminovitch was instrumental in getting four of the major players up-and-running – first as a scientist at the University of Toronto, then as a leader in the research community.

In 1956, Siminovitch joined the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI) where he became Director of Biological Research in 1958. There, he was involved in studies in a number of areas related to cancer biology, including somatic cell genetics, which became his major research focus for the rest of his scientific career.

In 1966, Siminovitch was appointed the founding chair of the Department of Medical Cell Biology at the University of Toronto, later changed to Medical Genetics, and moved his laboratory to the new Medical Sciences Building on the main campus.. The new department's responsibility lay in genetics and immunology, neither of which was extant at that time in the medical school, as well as biophysics. Training was thereby offered to graduate students in fields that were to become the forefront of biology and medicine. During his 12-year term as chair, he also co-founded and served as an editor of several journals, including Virology, Science Forum, Cell, Somatic Cell and Molecular Genetics, and the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

In 1970, Siminovitch was named Geneticist-in-Chief at the Hospital for Sick Children. In 1978, at the end of his term as department chairman at the University of Toronto, Siminovitch moved his laboratory to the Hospital for Sick Children and focused his efforts on research in human genetics and work in the hospital.

In 1989, Siminovitch was appointed the research director of the new Mount Sinai Hospital Research Institute, which was soon renamed as the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute. The new institute quickly recruited scientists from Canada and the US, and became prominent internationally as a centre of first line medical research.

After his retirement from his full-time position in 1994, Siminovitch remained a senior figure in Ontario’s research community, acting as an advisor to the provincial government in a number of roles, including chair of its medical review panel for the Ontario Challenge Fund. He also advised the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto and the Loeb Research Institute in Ottawa. He is still active in cancer research circles, making appearances at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and other events.

Decades of honours

As a child in 1920s and 1930s Montreal, Siminovitch, the son of Eastern European immigrants who were hit hard by the Great Depression, first excelled at mathematics.

“The teaching in Montreal [public] schools in those years was not the best. But young Siminovitch loved mathematics and could study it by himself,” notes a profile of him on Science.ca, a Canadian science education website. “He had to score high [on entrance examinations] to pass the unofficial stiff standards for Jewish applicants to McGill University. Siminovitch won a scholarship that combined with an early morning paper route provided the additional money needed to pay for his schooling.”

Siminovitch decided to major in chemistry rather than math at McGill, and also took an interest in English literature while at university. While working on his PhD in the early 1940s, he attended lectures in biochemistry out of curiosity and quickly determined his future was in the life sciences. Through his family, Siminovitch was personally acquainted with Louis Rapkine, a French biochemist, who invited Siminovitch to study and work in Paris in the years after the Second World War. In Paris, Siminovitch joined and trained in the laboratories of AndréLwoff and Jacques Monod, two future Nobel Prize Winners.

Siminovitch’s early career also included a term with Canada’s atomic energy project, first in Ottawa and then in Chalk River, Ontario. In 1953, he received a National Research Council Fellowship and moved to Toronto to work for the Connaught Laboratories. While at Connaught, he was free to develop his interests in mammalian cell biology, and met Dr. Arthur Ham, a professor of histology at the University of Toronto. In 1956, it was Dr. Ham who invited Siminovitch to join his cancer research group at the Ontario Cancer Institute – a move that paved the way to one of the most distinguished scientific careers in Canadian history.

Siminovitch has received many honours over the past seven decades, both for his own scientific abilities and his ability to create environments for other scientists to do world-leading research. He was awarded the 1941 Anne Molson Prize in Chemistry at McGill, a 1967 Centennial Medal, a Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Silver Medal in 1977, the Gairdner Foundation Wightman Award and the 1981 Killam Memorial Prize in 1981. In 1999, he was named a foreign associate to the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., one of only a few Canadians named to this position. He has received honorary degrees from Memorial University of Newfoundland, McMaster University, Université de Montreal, McGill University, the University of Guelph, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1965, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1980, a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1988 and an inductee to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1997.