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Trailblazing gene researcher returns to Canada

One of the world's leading genomics researchers has been wooed back to Canada.

After years of pioneering work in France, Britain and Japan, Canadian Mark Lathrop is returning home to take the helm of the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre.

The high-profile "brain regain" will be announced officially in Montreal on Monday.

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Jean-Marc Proulx, president and CEO of Génome Québec, said the hiring is a coup. He described it as a "vote of confidence" and an "endorsement of the quality of genomics research" being done in the country.

Dr. Lathrop, a biostatistician, did his undergraduate and Master's studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He followed with a PhD in theoretical statistics and genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But he made his mark in Europe, particularly in France, as a genomicist. Genomics is the study of how genes interact, in all their mind-boggling complexity.

Dr. Lathrop was one of the founders of the Centre for the Study of Human Polymorphisms in Paris; the centre, known by its French acronym CEPH, did pioneering genomics work in the 1980s, long before plans were unveiled to map the human genome. (The human genome is the genetic map of the human body's DNA, including chromosomes and genes. It took researchers 13 years to map the human genome, culminating in 2003.)

In 1993, Dr. Lathrop moved to the University of Oxford, where he co-founded the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, which did groundbreaking work on understanding the molecular basis for disease in humans.

In 1998, the researcher, who is fluently bilingual, returned to France to found the National Centre for Genotyping, which went on to become one of the world's leading research centres for large-scale genetic studies.

Dr. Lathrop is also a visiting professor of human genetics at the Institute for Medical Sciences at the University of Tokyo.

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Richard Levin, dean of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, said genomics are on the verge of fundamentally changing medical care into a more personalized, predictive and preventive science and Canada is well-positioned to take a leading role in this transformation.

Dr. Levin said the recruitment of a star genomics researcher like Dr. Lathrop "represents not only a gain for us, but also for Quebec and Canadian science and industry."

The hiring is also a salve for McGill, which was still smarting after losing world-renowned genetic researcher Tom Hudson in 2007. Dr. Hudson left the Génome Québec Innovation Centre to become president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. Ontario was able to woo top-flight researchers by offering far more research dollars than other provinces.

Dr. Lathrop, 60, is prolific, having authored more than 600 scientific papers in genetics, genomics and statistics. His appointment includes a budget of $5-million, money that can be used to attract other researchers. That is a good chunk of the $30-million the Quebec government provides to Génome Québec as part of the provincial innovation strategy.

Dr. Lathrop's current research focuses on DNA variants that predispose humans to common diseases like cardiovascular disease, asthma and lung cancer.

Dr. Lathrop holds dual Canadian and French citizenship. He is a recipient of the French Legion of Honour, the country's highest award.

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