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A meeting of medical superstars

What will medicine of the future look like? You’ll know which diseases you’re susceptible to.

What will medicine of the future look like? You’ll know which diseases you’re susceptible to. Cancer will no longer be defined by where in the body it strikes, but rather by its type.

Drugs will no longer be one-size-fits-all, but customized for your particular genetic makeup. Doctors will be able to grow stem cells from normal cells and use them to fix damaged hearts and spinal cords.

Toronto caught a glimpse of medicine’s future last week when the world’s top scientists came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gairdner Awards. These awards are known as the Baby Nobels because so many recipients of the Canadian awards have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

“It was the most prestigious gathering of scientists in Toronto in history,” said Dr. John Dirks, President and Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation and a Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Besides the awards ceremony, there were also lectures, workshops and public forums. Symposia were also held in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Sherbrooke, Halifax and Montreal.

One of the forum topics was the personalized genome and whether it’s a good to plunge in. Do we want to know our genetic makeup? What do we do with this knowledge?

“This is actually looking ahead to the diseases you might develop: brain disease, kidney disease, heart disease,” Dr. Dirks told Metro.

“You can prepare for it, stay alert to new developments and modify your risk through lifestyle adjustments. Is this the modern medicine of the future? It probably is.”

Buying your personalized genome will soon cost about $5,000, he estimated, and will be widely available in the next five to 10 years. “What needs to be sorted out is: Is it money well spent?”

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka from Japan was one of seven scientists in Toronto accepting a 2009 Gairdner Award. He has helped change the course of medical history by creating new stem cells in his laboratory.

He took the skin cells of an 81-year-old man, injected them with substances which, over time, turned them back into embryonic stem cells. From there, the idea is these stem cells can regenerate into other kinds of cells and eventually replace diseased cells.

“If you can make these in profusion,” said Dr. Dirks, “they will be therapy for the future.”

Gathering the world’s super-star scientists here raises Canada’s profile in the world of medicine and inspires young Canadian scientists to take become researchers. Already, says Dr. Dirks.

“Canada has a very good reputation in medical research. We have many outstanding scientists here.”

 
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