Studying the chemistry of life
Biochemistry isn’t “just” about chemistry – it is about the fundamentals of life itself. “People in our department are working to understand how chemical reactions somehow combine so that life happens and is sustained,” says Professor Albert Berghuis, Chair of McGill’s Department of Biochemistry. “Then, we push the inquiry a bit further. We know that, if everything goes well, life is wonderful — but what if things don’t go so well? What happens on a chemical level during disease? And, to take the inquiry one step further, how can we fix that?”
Medical research is a major focus of the department, which has about 50 masters students, 80 PhD candidates and 25 postdoctoral students. Much of the research is into cancer and many faculty are also members of the Goodman Cancer Research Centre. Research into infectious disease is another major departmental focus.
On the brink of tailor-made therapies
Researchers are now investigating complex issues such as the molecular changes that cause cancer drugs to stop working after a while, or why some people with breast cancer respond to certain therapies while others don’t. Tailoring treatment to the individual has long been a goal of medicine. Now, with advances in biochemistry and related fields, that goal may soon be in reach.
“There has never been a time like the present for biochemistry research,” says Dr. Berghuis. “Thanks to advances in technology and the genome revolution, we can move research forward at a phenomenal rate. What would have taken me five years as a graduate student can now be done in months. As a result, we can now start to ask questions that we could not even think about a few years ago.
“People have been talking about personalized medicine for some time now. Our success in that area will depends heavily on our understanding of the biochemistry of disease. And we are on the brink now of making that happen. I hope that people see the value of basic research because this is really what drives biochemistry – and eventually medical science – forward. Basic research gives us an understanding of how things works. It may not immediately translate to a cure for diseases but it gives us fundamental knowledge –and without that knowledge, there is nothing to translate.”
A breadth of knowledge and interests not found in many places
While funding is a huge ongoing challenge for all researchers, McGill’s Biochemistry department is less impacted because of the quality of its researchers, according to Dr. Berghuis. “Our faculty includes many award-winning scientists with international reputations. Together, they have a breadth of knowledge and interests not found in many places .”
Biochemistry students at McGill can study with scientists doing experiments on engineered mice or, at the other extreme with researchers working at the atomic level. This diversity and McGill’s global reputation allows the department to attract top students – and retain those who are truly excited about research as graduate students.
An undergraduate degree in biochemistry has traditionally been seen as a precursor to a career in health care. Many of the department’s 300 undergraduates do indeed go on to medical or dental school, while others continue to do medical research. “We also encourage entrepreneurship among our students at both the undergrad and graduate level,” says Dr. Berghuis. “In recent years, graduates have branched into a range of non-traditional fields, from urban greenhouse management to children’s science education.
“I always look forward to welcoming graduates back to McGill,” he adds. “ It’s very important for us to hear from former students what worked, what was useful, and what we can do to make things better for the next generation. Graduates are important members of the McGill community, and we rely on them to help us shape the future.”