Of Hockey and Science

If there was a periodic table for hockey, it would include the element of “fun” for biochemist Lewis Kay, winner of the prestigious 2018 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, a peer-awarded prize for excellence and influence in research.  The University of Toronto professor and senior scientist in molecular medicine at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital spoke to us about his research, and what science and hockey have in common.

What motivates you in your research?

To have a good time. I mean it sounds strange, but if I give you a hockey analogy, winning teams are teams where the players are having fun, right? They want to get on the ice, to just have fun. If you hold your stick too hard you won’t be able to shoot the puck in the net. It’s the same thing in science – you want to just let your mind carry you forward, and so that’s what I try to do. I think if we’re having fun, we’re going to do some really good work. I can hardly predict what is going to happen in the next 20 years… but the goal is just to keep going and try to go to the highest level possible, and if I can do that then I think I will be successful.

Can you elaborate on your work?

We develop and use a technology called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance [NMR] Spectroscopy to study bio-molecules, such as proteins which perform many of the important cellular functions. The methodology that we develop allows us to probe how the form of a protein changes in time and in response to interactions with other molecules, or as a result of mutations. The work has implications for understanding how proteins behave “normally” and in diseased states with, in our case, applications in the areas of neurodegeneration and cancer.

How has the technology impacted research over the years?

For nearly three decades we’ve had a fairly extensive research program focused on increasingly larger bio-molecules. For example, 30 years ago the size of a protein we could study was limited to one that might contain about 100 amino acids. Today, we are able to examine much larger, more complex proteins, potentially containing more than 1,000 amino acids, and how such proteins might interact with other large molecules. We are very interested in developing those technologies to address our own research but also to enable others in solving problems in ways that I could not imagine.

Where do you get your molecule samples?

We make our samples using the tools of molecular biology. Starting from the DNA that codes for the protein, we exploit cellular factories that make our proteins for us, and subsequently we purify them or add them to other molecules to study.

What was the moment like when you realized the potential of your research?

There was a time between 2002 and 2003 when we were working on methods for looking at really big molecules –
so-called molecular machines – and we finally figured out how to do it. I knew then that this would have some sort of impact, but it has taken about 15 years for the field to start using the methods on a regular basis. We have also developed ways to focus on molecules changing their shapes to form rare conformations that can be critical both to function and malfunction, and these methods are beginning to emerge in the mainstream as well. You start to do these things, but for many years you’re sort of lonely – of course that’s a good thing too, because it means you are at the head of the pack – but that’s kind of a lonely feeling until others start to pick up and build on those methods.

What attracted you to the field of biophysics?

I really like physics; that was the area I wanted to pursue, and with NMR there is a lot of physics involved. I studied biochemistry as an undergrad because my father was a professor at the University of Alberta, and I leveraged that to get out of a number of courses I didn’t want to take, regrettably including English.

Your methodologies have impacted the work of various laboratories around the world. How do you feel about that?

It’s true that our methods are used around the world in a number of different biochemistry and biophysics labs by people who apply the NMR techniques to study bio molecules in solution. When people  copy you, it validates your work. However, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that anything that I’ve done would even be close to some of the great innovations. But even on a small scale you can derive great satisfaction from knowing that your work is well read and appreciated and respected by your colleagues.

You were recently awarded the prestigious 2018 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal. What does this honour mean to you?

It’s certainly nice to get recognized by your peers; I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years. There’s a large number of really good scientists in Canada in a lot of different areas. You look at the people who have won the Herzberg over the years – they run the gamut from physicists, to biologists, to chemists – many are exceptional individuals, and to be included in that class is a great feeling.

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