Studying the structures of living things

Dr. Craig Mandato, ACB Chair

Dr. Craig Mandato, ACB Chair

Like living things, organizations must constantly evolve in response to their changing environment. Advances in knowledge, improved technology and an influx of new talent are among the forces driving growth at McGill’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology (ACB). One of the University’s oldest departments, with almost 15 percent of the Faculty of Science’s undergraduate enrolment,  ACB is constantly evolving to keep pace with the relentless advance of biology and medicine.

“In 1909, when the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building was erected, students and professors in our department were studying bones and muscles,” says Dr. Craig Mandato, ACB Chair. “We still study these organs, but now we are also looking at structures and processes at the cellular and subatomic levels. For instance, we do a lot of research in cell signaling–how cells ‘communicate’ with each other to keep the body functioning properly.”

High-end microscopy an essential tool

Because these subjects rely on high-end microscopy, ACB researchers and trainees have access to a wide array of advanced technology, including the new cryo-electron microscope, the only one of its kind in Canada. As the name suggests, the microscope maintains sample specimens at ultra-low temperatures so they do not deteriorate while being studied.  Using this microscope, scientists can examine the structure of cells, proteins, and polymers. And, as so often is the case in science, advances in technology open the door to new discoveries and insights.

anatomy rendering 1

An artist’s rendering of the new, state-of-the art gross anatomy lab, which will provide facilities for 264 students. The redesigned lab will preserve the architectural heritage of the Strathcona Building while modernizing the space. Upgrades will include high performance ventilation, lighting, temperature and humidity controls. Students will have access to a range of technologies to support multiple modes of teaching and learning.

To keep pace with advances in the fields of biology, medicine and the anatomical sciences, ACB must constantly review its structure, mandate, and goals. One of the most recent achievements in defining this mandate is the establishment of the Division of Anatomical Sciences within the department, under the leadership of Dr. Geoffrey Noel. The division’s mandate is to address the growing demand for the educational services of the department and the university, and to bring together medical and  undergraduate science teaching. It is also responsible for exploring new pedagogical techniques and incorporating them into the teaching of anatomy within ACB.

Fantastic science on a shoestring

While the department is renewing itself on every level, Mandato admits that finding adequate research funding nonetheless remains a challenge. “We’re doing fantastic science, but we’re doing it on a shoestring,” he says. “Many funding bodies are focused on ‘translational research,’ but without the basic science, there’s nothing to ‘translate.’”

guy on microscope

The Anatomy and Cell Biology Confocal Microscopy facility possesses a Zeiss 510 laser scanning microscope equipped with three detectors — suitable for fixed- and live-cell observation of a wide variety of sample types.

Basic research often leads to new treatments and therapies. For example, hockey legend Gordie Howe recently received stem cell therapy – a form of treatment which promotes the growth of new cells to replace damaged ones — to help him recover from a devastating stroke. This treatment was made possible by the 1953 discovery of stem cells by ACB scientists Dr. Charles Philippe Leblond and Dr. Yves Clermont.

“Their discovery paved the way for new treatments of stroke, cancer, and other diseases,” says Mandato. “Scientists are now identifying more and more potential uses for stem-cell therapy – and all these were made possible by basic research done right here at McGill.”

New facilities, new scientists moving department forward

To ensure that ACB remains one of the top anatomy departments in North America, McGill is currently upgrading its facilities. Extensive renovations are needed, as are fundraising dollars, because the department is currently housed in a building that’s over 115 years old – and the anatomy lab is much the same as it was in 1909.

anatomy quoteBut while facilities are important, any university department is ultimately defined by the individuals – students and professors – associated with it. Many ACB professors have recently retired or will be in the next 5 years, and a new generation of gifted young professors is bringing fresh expertise and life to the department. “This is how you revitalize a department,” says Dr. Mandato. “You bring in bright, young scientists and you foster their potential.  Who knows where it will lead? With fresh talent and modernized facilities, we are moving forward into a new era.”



EDITOR’S NOTE: The historic Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building is being renovated and its facilities upgraded. For details, please click here.


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