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nation builder: science

Anthony Pawson, Nation Builder of the Decade, ScienceAndre Van Vugt - Giant Vision

Anthony (Tony) James Pawson

Birthplace: Maidstone, England

Age: 57

Anthony Pawson's research on signal transduction, the molecular mechanisms by which cells communicate with each other, has been revolutionary. He has remained on the leading edge of a rapidly evolving field, molecular biology, for two decades.

Anthony Pawson has a gift for making the complex simple and the obscure relevant. It's one of the reasons why Dr. Pawson, one of the world's great biomedical researchers, has become an eloquent ambassador for Canadian science.

As head of the eponymous Tony Pawson Lab of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, he writes erudite articles with titles like "Phosphorylation of the SHC proteins on tyrosine correlates with the transformation of fibroblasts and erythroblasts by the v-sea tyrosine kinase" in ultra-specialized scientific journals like Oncogene.

But ask him about his research and he will tell you, for example, that the inside of every cell is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape.

Dr. Pawson's quest has been figuring out how the pieces (or molecules) communicate to fit together to make a complete picture (a normally functioning cell) and how, in turn, these cells communicate with each other. This biological process is called signal transduction.

More specifically, he has helped explain how, when an important piece of the puzzle is left out or inserted into the wrong place - due to miscommunication - the result is proliferation and movement. Ultimately, this is the trigger for diseases like cancer, diabetes and even viral illnesses.

While this may seem abstract, it has real practical implications: It means, for example, that cancer is a disease of communication. By extension, if you alter the message, you can change the course of the disease.

By unravelling the language of cells, and specific proteins within cells, Dr. Pawson has paved the way for others to develop drugs like Gleevec, Herceptin and Avastin that have dramatically changed cancer treatment.

Dr. Pawson has received a bevy of honours for his work, including the Kyoto Prize (Japan's Nobel), the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Gairdner Award. The only two major honours that have eluded him - so far, at least - are the Lasker Prize and the Nobel Prize.

Beyond his personal research, Dr. Pawson has also taken seriously his mentorship of young scientists and, as a result, his laboratory has produced a virtual who's who of researchers in the increasingly important field of signal transduction.

He has also embraced his role as the face of Canadian science, travelling the world and selling Canada as a great place to do research and to live.

With his reputation, Dr. Pawson could write his own ticket in the United States, Britain, or other countries that invest far more heavily in scientific research. But he opts to stay in Canada in large part because of the congeniality and collaboration that is one of the hallmarks of the research enterprise in this country.

In accepting the Kyoto Prize recently, Dr. Pawson sounded quintessentially Canadian in his humility: "None of the progress I have made has been achieved solely as an individual. I was trained by brilliant and inspiring mentors, and I have had the benefit of a collegial group of scientists around the world. … I could have done nothing without the dedication, insights and hard work of outstanding students and post-doctoral fellows, many of whom are now highly successful independent scientists in their own right."

Many of whom, Dr. Pawson could have added, saw far because they were standing on the shoulders of a giant.

André Picard is The Globe and Mail's public health reporter.