Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

‘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,”’ says Tak Mak, director of the Campbell Family Institute for Cancer Research in Toronto.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Story continues below advertisement

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.

About seven years ago, the two top graduates at the University of Toronto with the highest GPAs [grade point averages] came to my lab. As a requirement for one of them to get into Stanford medical school, they would only accept her if she spent one year in my lab to do research. That's Stanford, because it's one of the top medical schools in the world. There are very creative minds there.

Did you know that 97 per cent of Stanford medical school grads have some connection to academia? So when they graduated and went on to a career, they didn't just set up a private practice, they also remained connected to a university. 97 per cent! So that says very clearly that is a medical school that is training doctors to be innovators.

Would that be your advice to medical students who want to innovate? Spend time doing research?

Story continues below advertisement

The 20th century was a great century for science. It was a century where fundamental paradigms of biology were discovered. But we basically have discovered 99 per cent of the biological paradigms. I think the only discipline where there will be new fundamental paradigms that we have not yet discovered would be neurobiology, how the brain works.

But the 21st century will be about applying that fundamental knowledge – the paradigms and principles of biology – into medicine. And the only group of people who can translate that well will be the physicians. So to me, in the 21st century, the great principles of new insight into physiology will come from brilliant people who are trained in both fields: the clinician-scientists.

I constantly have in my lab five clinician-scientists, who are with me but are also qualified doctors. I have a medical oncologist, a nephrologist, I just had a cardiologist. They are actually seeing patients one day a week and spending six days in my lab, because they work seven days a week. These people, if they see something one day in the clinic and then can connect it to something in the lab, that kind of translation will be above and beyond just listening to music. It's like learning how to play the violin and then integrating all that knowledge to compose a symphony.

I think that is the most important convergence needed – clinician-scientists – and Canada has very, very few.

Why don't we have more?

It has to be something you want to do, because when you graduate from medical school and you've done your residency and you are now a specialist in a particular discipline, you can make $300,000 or $400,000 a year. You want two cars, a house with three garages. That is fundamentally in conflict with deciding to go into research.

Story continues below advertisement

One of the clinician-scientists in my lab makes a salary of $23,000. He has a wife and two kids at home. So I applied to have special permission to pay him more. Is that person not pressured to give it up and go into practice? Who is going to be a fully trained physician and go into research? But there are some people like that. These are the people of the future.

Is part of the motivation to innovate about wanting to do something good for the world? To help sick people?

I think that is probably to some extent flawed. If you are like, oh, I feel so bad because every day I come to work I see these patients, some are very young and they are dying of cancer, I've got to help them, that is not enough.

If you're doing it just for the patients, it doesn't work as well as if you are just driven by the curiosity of finding new scientific and medical connections. A brilliant scientist could do it all out of the curiosity, and not care about the patients, and whatever happens that is good for the patients is just a bonus.

So taking the emotion out of the process is a good thing?

As Aesop said about emotion, 'It is with our passions as it is with fire and water, they are good servants, but bad masters.' When we use water to shower or fire to cook, it's a servant. But when it is a master, it's a building burning down or you drowning.

Story continues below advertisement

So emotion should be used as a servant. You use your emotion because you care and therefore you try to make that scientific discovery. But if your emotion is your master, when your experiment doesn't work, you will break down. And that doesn't help, because you have to keep on trying.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies