In a small Toronto conference room this fall, the suits and ties of Ontario's research brass filed in just before Tom Hudson took the podium.
The 45-year-old father of five is a star geneticist. But Dr. Hudson was not there to talk genetics. He was there to talk cancer and many scientists have been eager to hear him speak.
Just as Alberta recruited top talent from Ontario to build up its children's hospital, Ontario lured Dr. Hudson away from his native Quebec and McGill University this spring to head one of the best-funded cancer research networks in the country.
People were curious -- "He's the new messiah," one prominent cancer researcher mumbled under his breath before Dr. Hudson appeared.
While Quebec's local media and McGill colleagues mourned his departure, the Ontario reception was guarded. Some were skeptical that a young genome scientist should lead the newly minted Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
"I think there may have been those who said, 'Where's the cancer background?' " said Terry Sullivan, president and CEO of Cancer Care Ontario. "But Tom is allaying any skepticism in his first three months on the job. He is a young, smart physician-scientist."
Dr. Hudson acknowledged his appointment may have been puzzling to those who don't know him. "People tend to put me in a box," he said. "Maybe they read my papers [related to genomics]and maybe thought I was a technologist. But I'm a clinician, I'm an immunologist and I'm a genome scientist.
"I've met people and formed solid bonds and relationships."
In the fiercely competitive world of mainstream science, where egos can be larger than budgets, one of Dr. Hudson's greatest assets may be his ability to make more friends than enemies.
As John Evans, the institute's board chair, put it: "He doesn't create antibodies.
"He has this enormous energy and this enormous capacity to empower people."
From a short list of candidates that included researchers from the United States, Britain and Australia, Dr. Evans said Dr. Hudson also stood out for his proven track record of co-ordinating big science projects from scratch. And nearly everything about the new institute runs on a big scale.
With an enviable budget of $350-million over five years, the OICR is a powerful new player in the oncology field. It has plans to fund up to 60 scientists, half of them in house, move research quickly from lab to clinic, commercialize new discoveries and improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment in the province.
As its scientific director, Dr. Hudson will also work with a board of international science advisers that includes renowned researchers such as Canadian Tak Mak, who discovered the T-cell receptor, the key to the immune system, and Phillip Sharp, an American researcher who won a Nobel prize in medicine for his co-discovery of split genes.
The institute's long-term funding commitment (from Ontario's Ministry of Research and Innovation) was partly what drew Dr. Hudson to the new job. And observers in Quebec have since questioned whether that province is falling behind in its ability to support basic research. But Dr. Hudson made it clear that money was not the sole factor. Personal ambitions, he said, also came to bear in his decision to move west.
The OICR occupies the fifth floor of the MaRS building in downtown Toronto, an architectural triumph of soaring ceilings, stone floors and natural light. Yet Dr. Hudson's office, where he sat down for a recent interview in his characteristic khakis and a cotton shirt, is a study in understatement -- grey-toned carpet, laminate furniture, no window and a single closet where he keeps the tie he doesn't like to wear.
Ties, he says, are for the boardroom: "I can do boardroom, but I don't like to do it all the time."
At a distance, Dr. Hudson has the look of a professor about him, thin, balding and bespectacled. But up close, he has the unlined face of a man half his age, and a youthful excitement that seems to spark as he steps into the concrete sea of the unfinished labs. He breaks into a wide smile and waves his arms like a conductor as he details his vision for the cavernous space where some two dozen researchers will soon be working amid a maze of the latest high-tech tools.
"I always loved science and technology," he said. "I was a geek -- I'm still a geek."
Dr. Hudson grew up with six sisters -- including a twin -- in Quebec's Saguenay region and science always found a place at the table. His father was a chemist with Alcan who had done his post-doctorate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His mother was a nurse. Three of his siblings are also doctors, one is a pharmacist and another is an optometrist. The holdout works in telecommunications.
Dr. Hudson earned his MD at the University of Montreal in 1985 and completed residencies in internal medicine and immunology at McGill. In 1991, he followed his father's path and accepted a fellowship at MIT. It was there he fell in love with genomics, becoming one of the first scientists involved in developing methods to map the human genome.
By 1995, after his team had mapped 10,000 genes, he became assistant director of MIT's Center for Genome Research and returned to McGill part-time to create the Montreal Genome Centre.
In 2001, he moved back to McGill full time and two years later founded and directed the Genome Quebec Innovation Centre. Last year, it collaborated on 500 projects, hunting and finding genes linked to colon cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis, obesity and heart disease.
At the same time, Dr. Hudson also led the Canadian contribution to the Haplotype Map, the first catalogue of the genetic differences between four of the world's major ethnic groups.
But last fall, with the HapMap project winding down, the genome centre running smoothly and his 45th birthday approaching, Dr. Hudson grew restless.
"I was thinking that I had always hoped to have an impact on treatment and that the time was running out," said Dr. Hudson, who had continued seeing patients a half-day each week.
"By 2005, I was getting impatient. The body of knowledge was getting bigger and bigger, but the question for me was, how do you bring that to the clinic?"
So when the OICR hiring team contacted him last winter, he was immediately intrigued. It didn't seem like a major switch in interests, he said; he would be building another large operation from the ground up and, he noted, "Cancer is essentially a disease of the genome."
In fact, Dr. Sullivan pointed out that one of the first research projects likely to reach patients is a genetic screening test for people with a family history of colorectal cancer, a project in which Dr. Hudson has been intimately involved.
The idea, Dr. Sullivan said, is that "we could assess someone's risk and if they are at risk, monitor them more closely and prevent [cancer from developing]or catch it early."
Besides his obvious genetic expertise, Dr. Hudson also brought to the job a certain "impatience to discover," said Dr. Evans, rubbing his fingers together as though it were a tactile sensation. "He gives off this feeling that he just doesn't want to waste time."
This speedy approach played out in dramatic fashion once Dr. Hudson accepted the job in May. His post-doctoral students threw a cheeky farewell to the devout Montreal Canadiens fan complete with Toronto Maple Leafs hockey souvenirs, and by July he and his wife bought a house in Rosedale and moved to Toronto with their five children, ages two to 17.
"Yes, five," Dr. Hudson laughed, "and our youngest was not an accident. We love kids."
Since arriving in Toronto, Dr. Hudson has spent most of his time on the road, touring the province to investigate how the cancer system works in Ontario, meeting researchers and deciding which projects should take priority and receive funding.
As Dr. Sullivan noted, Dr. Hudson, the big-name recruit, is now himself a major recruiter, on the hunt to land researchers both in house and for placement at academic institutions around Ontario.
"His largest learning curve is to find out where the talent lies in Ontario . . . there are pockets of excellence."
Dr. Hudson considers himself well armed for the task: "I can recruit people with a promise of a long-term job."
He is still helping to run the genome centre at McGill until his replacement is chosen, but Dr. Hudson has promised not to poach from his old stomping grounds.