Meet Dr. Stephen Robbins, the new Director of Research at the JGH’s Lady Davis Institute with a bold vision

 As the recently appointed Director of Research at the Jewish General Hospital’s Lady Davis Institute (LDI), Dr. Stephen Robbins wants to see more collaboration, more risk-taking, and more international recognition for the establishment.

“I’d love to see a new pavilion associated with the Lady Davis Institute, so a new research centre that has a vision of team-based research,” said Dr. Robbins. “Everyone gets into the rowboat and rows together and works collectively as a team. I’d like the Lady Davis to be considered a bold institution with bold innovations.”

The LDI is a leading medical research institute in Canada. Since it was founded in 1969, significant advances made at the LDI have contributed to the health and well-being of patients in Quebec, Canada, and around the world. These advances include seminal contributions to HIV research, in particular, Dr. Mark Wainberg’s pioneering work at the LDI in the 1980s and 1990s. He and his team developed the anti-viral drug 3TC, which is combined with other medications to treat the infections caused by HIV.

The LDI has four axes of activity: Cancer, Clinical Epidemiology, Molecular and Regenerative Medicine, and Psychosocial Aspects of Disease. For Dr. Robbins, the axes can at times be too insular, and he is interested in exploring research that incorporates several of them at once.

“I’d like the Lady Davis to be considered a bold institution with bold innovations.” –  Dr. Stephen Robbins

The emerging field of Precision Medicine is one of the most promising cross-cutting approaches, with Dr. Robbins calling it “extremely important.” In Precision Medicine, targeted treatments are customized to a subgroup of patients, often based on diagnostic testing involving genetics or other molecular or cellular analysis. It enables physicians to be more precise in determining which drugs patients should receive without resorting to one-size-fits-all treatments such as traditional chemotherapy.

“You can look at groups of people that might have similar characteristics,” Dr. Robbins said. “You can be more precise on who should get a drug and who should not get a certain drug.”

At the JGH’s Segal Cancer Centre, which is affiliated with the LDI, research into Precision Medicine is growing in prominence.

“Personalized precision oncology is one of the best areas where we’ve been able to demonstrate which cancer patients, based on the genetics of their tumours, will respond to different therapies,” said Dr. Robbins.

The Centre is also becoming well-known for its innovative work with liquid biopsies, which analyze tumours for biomarkers circulating in the blood. In essence, clinician-researchers can see whether a patient has early signs of cancer by taking a blood sample. Cancer cells put their DNA into circulation, and technology can determine whether a patient has cancer, what type they have, and how well they are responding to therapy.

Redressing health disparities in medicine

Another cross-cutting approach that Dr. Robbins aims to explore at the LDI is redressing health disparity in the medical system.

“The pandemic has illuminated populations that are more disadvantaged than others and more susceptible to severe impact – whether that’s because of their genetics or because of the societal impact,” said Dr. Robbins. “Understanding that may allow us to come up with new medications, which would redress disparities.”

Dr. Robbins cites a recent paper by the LDI’s Dr. Brent Richards and his colleagues, examining inherited genes that make individuals more or less susceptible to getting severe complications from COVID-19. Some individuals are at higher risk based on their genetics. The example highlights why Dr. Robbins is committed to the health of diverse populations.

“I think it’s important to understand why certain populations have different health outcomes,” said Dr. Robbins. “The LDI could be a real leader in the area.”

From the bench to the bedside

Part of Dr. Robbins’ vision for the LDI is an exemplary flow for research from its initial stages to clinical application.

“It’s important to have a foundation of basic discovery, and then a path to take that to clinical intervention and clinical application,” he said. “Not many institutions have that. They’ve got pieces of it, but they don’t have a nice flow to go from what we call the bench to the bedside.”

Dr. Robbins notes how, in one example, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of discovery for a drug that could block specific blood cells from accumulating in the lungs of an infected patient. The cells could damage the lungs and cause tissue damage called acute lung injury. They were able to do a Phase One clinical trial in 2020 using COVID patients and are now going into a Phase Three trial.

“That was a perfect example of where we could take something from what we discovered in the lab, all the way to clinical trial in a fairly short period of time,” said Dr. Robbins. “It usually takes about 18 years.”

Dr. Robbins’ goal is to make a better flow for bench-to-bedside at the LDI.

“I want that to be a philosophy to go forward.”

Funding innovative research through the JGH Foundation

Finding funding for all of this ground-breaking work can be challenging, particularly given Dr. Robbins’ vision of a bold research approach for the LDI.

“The normal funding system in Canada doesn’t promote, in my humble opinion, some of the bold ideas,” Dr. Robbins said. “It tends to be fairly conservative in its approaches to how our research funding is allocated.”

That’s where the JGH Foundation comes in. It provides some of the foundational support for the LDI to deliver innovative work and take on bold research projects. For Dr. Robbins, the ability to take risks in research is critical to advancing knowledge.

“The Foundation has allowed us to be much more advanced and high-risk, high-reward in the types of programs that we do,” Dr. Robbins said. “I think that’s fundamental.”

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