When it comes to scientific discovery, Tak Wah Mak is an undisputed rock star.
The world-renowned Canadian scientist and researcher has devoted his life to unravelling medical mysteries in the areas of virology, immunology and cancer metabolism. His brilliant career has been punctuated by breakthroughs, including the discovery of the Holy Grail of immunology – the T-cell receptor – in 1984.
At 67, Dr. Mak is co-director of the Campbell Family Cancer Research Institute at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. He thrilled the medical community last year when he and his team developed an exciting new drug that could revolutionize cancer treatment.
Called a “sharpshooter” drug, CFI-400945 is a totally new way of approaching cancer treatment. The drug targets a key enzyme called PLK4, which plays a critical role in cancer cell division, and unlike chemotherapy, doesn’t affect healthy cells.
The drug has been in clinical trials for several months, blinded to everyone except two doctors who are sworn to secrecy. (Dr. Mak is not one of them.) The trials are scheduled to continue until 2016, but he says, “If [results are] spectacular, I think we will know early next year.” Meanwhile, Dr. Mak and his team have continued to search for more targets, and are developing another promising cancer drug from a second target enzyme.
Dr. Mak stepped out of the lab to discuss his innovative process, why Canada needs more clinician-scientists and how scientific discovery can be like listening to Mozart:
Where does the spark of innovation come from?
I don’t know! (Laughing.) I think it’s important that one is curious. Curiosity is a very important part. There are theories that this is genetically inherited – the ability to make connections. But I think it is so very important for those of us who try to make new intuitions that we are very, very curious about different things. Read and try to understand a wide variety of disciplines and try to make connections, because the universe in science is all connected, whether it’s at the level of chemistry or physics or biology. There are principles you can cross-reference and I think that to me is a very important part of being able to make new observations.
What is your innovative process? Do you work better alone or in a team?
I work extensively in teams. I have two dozen or so very close friends who are scientists who I constantly engage with, whether it’s in a meeting or when we try to relax and play a round of golf.
My quest for knowledge is very high, and what turns me on is to be able to listen to a presentation that someone is making and all of a sudden, in my mind, I say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is connected to something else I know.’ And I think this process is extremely important.
You have made brilliant discoveries in your career. How do you allow your mind to let go of what you know and think outside the box?
I am on a dozen scientific advisory boards … so I am constantly being exposed to lots of data and ideas from everybody. So it’s almost like you keep feeding information into a computer and the computer keeps cranking away, trying to make connections.
I just came back from Japan … and a very prominent cancer doctor presented his work and his views. I was going nuts. It’s like listening to Mozart and making connections. Like, this tune comes from Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 331, and these particular three notes are shared with one of Bach’s cello concertos. And at the end, the talk stops and you come up with a question, and you say, ‘I think that this particular string of notes can be found in these different pieces of music.’ But it’s not just music you listen to and forget, you make demands on yourself to try to make patterns out of all the music you listen to, and try to come up with some unifying concept that transfers right through a string of melodies.
Even talking to you I get excited. Nature works like that, and nature is even more fundamentally rational than music because everything from the primordial soup to a human being is driven by selection.
How much of scientific discovery is luck?
I’d say 50 per cent – 50 per cent is luck and serendipity.
When it comes to scientific and medical discovery, what stifles innovation?
What stifles innovation are cultures where they demand that students only regurgitate knowledge. There are countries where I am on scientific advisory boards and the students work very hard and they memorize everything. Unfortunately medical school is like that. It’s about regurgitating what you know. Mind you, different medical schools have different approaches.