New tools could mean profound changes ahead in medicine, says Canadian Medical Hall of Fame inductee Dr. Brett Finlay
Six exceptional individuals have been inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2018 — and one of them is Microbiome Insights’ co-founder Dr. B. Brett Finlay, University of British Columbia Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Medicine, and Peter Wall Distinguished Professor at the Michael Smith Laboratories.
The honour recognizes contributions to medicine and the health sciences that have had an extraordinary impact on human health.
Dr. Finlay is a microbiome knowledge leader whose work has explored the role of microorganisms in human health and disease — in particular, asthma and malnutrition. His discoveries have led to the development of several human and animal vaccines, and to treatments for drug-resistant infections like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). (See Finlay’s full biography here.)
Below, we share a conversation with this esteemed member of our team — covering his career accomplishments and what he sees as the future of medicine.
Over the years, you must have overcome many challenges. What has driven you to do the things you’ve done in science and medicine?
I have always loved science, and the idea of using science to improve the world, including peoples’ lives, has always been a driving factor for me. Of course there are challenges, but as scientists we have the privilege to explore an exciting frontier, and find things never found before. Of course there are challenges, but all things worth doing have them, and being able to do science that has the potential to change the world is the greatest gift a scientist can have.
In your long and broad-ranging career, what medicine-related accomplishment or recognition are you most proud of?
The neat thing about science is you never know where it will take you. We are fortunate to have many successes. Some of the highlights include developing a vaccine to E. coli O157, developing the first SARS vaccine, and showing the early life microbiome plays a role in determining asthma are but a few. I am also proud of the book I co-wrote, Let Them Eat Dirt, and the new one I am finishing, The Whole Body Microbiome: Healthy aging with your microbes. This has allowed us to share the wonder and excitement of the microbiome with so many people. It is also changing how they look after their children with healthy benefits, which excites me tremendously, being able to promote child health through science education.
How do you think medicine is changing now?
I am biased, but I think medicine is about to undergo a profound change. Genomics, personalized medicine, and the microbiome will all play a major role in this upheaval. The ability to sequence a person’s genome or microbiome, to do a metabolomic analysis of a person’s urine, or a proteomic analysis of they blood all provide wonderful new tools to really figure out what is going on in a person, and then hopefully be able to treat based on molecular knowledge. The development of Crispr-Cas 9 could easily revolutionize gene therapy as well.
What innovations or directions in medicine do you see as uniquely Canadian?
Canada hits above its weight in science [but] science is global, and builds upon the shoulders of others, so to claim a geographic specialty is difficult. Canadian scientists are involved in many of the groundbreaking findings worldwide.
How do you hope your own work will lay the foundation for a different kind of medicine in future?
I strongly believe the microbiome will radically change medicine. If you take the top 10 reasons Canadians die, 9 of those 10 now have microbial links. Similarly, we know the microbiome plays a profound role in how our body develops early in life. There are so many areas of medicine the microbiome is impacting, the inside joke is “what area isn’t affected”! The other advantage of the microbiome is that we can change it easily, unlike our own genes. This means its application should be easier than gene therapy or developing drugs — drugging the “bugs” will be a whole new area of pharmacy in the future.
The 2018 Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF) induction ceremony was held on April 12, 2018, in London, Ontario (Canada). See the CMHF video of Dr. Finlay here.