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Sinai Health | Magazine

Meet Dr. Miguel Ramalho-Santos

The LTRI’s newest recruit is searching for the genesis of disease - and a new band

By Marcia Kaye

"It’s sort of magical if you think about it. It’s just one little cell, but it gives rise to an entire body that has all sorts of specialized cells for different functions."
- Dr. Miguel Ramalho-Santos, Chair in Early Human Development

Diseases that show up in adulthood may have their start decades earlier. In fact, heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers could have their origins in the embryo stage. And while we used to think that all the information needed to generate a human being was hardwired in the genome, there’s growing evidence that environmental factors play a critical role.

At the forefront of this exciting field of research is Dr. Miguel Ramalho-Santos, who was recruited this year as the inaugural Chair in Early Human Development, supported in part by a generous gift from lead donor Great Gulf Group, and Senior Investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI), part of Sinai Health System. Dr. Ramalho-Santos grew up in Portugal, received his PhD at Harvard University and started his own lab at the University of California, San Francisco. He has been appointed the Canada 150 Research Chair in Developmental Epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how modifications in the expression of genes affect an organism’s development.

It’s this very development of a human being from a single fertilized egg that has long fascinated Dr. Ramalho-Santos. “It’s sort of magical if you think about it,” he says. “It’s just one little cell, but it gives rise to an entire body that has all sorts of specialized cells for different functions.”

Over the past 20 years, he has been studying how that happens and why it sometimes goes wrong. His latest exciting research found that “jumping genes,” which seemed to randomly jump around the genome and were long dismissed by scientists as unimportant junk DNA, actually have a critical role in promoting development of the early embryo, even before implantation in the uterus.

Dr. Ramalho-Santos is also studying the impact prenatally of external environmental factors such as chemical contaminants or maternal diet. In studying both mice and human embryonic stem cell lines, he’s found that dietary Vitamin C has critical roles in regulating development. “We might think that an embryo is sheltered from the outside world, but that’s not true,” he says. “It’s incredibly attuned to the outside world and all the positive and negative contributions from the environment.” He explains that environmental information imprinted during pregnancy — or even earlier, in the sperm or egg — may create a “memory” that leads to certain diseases in adulthood. His research will continue to shed light on the origins of these common diseases and also holds great promise for better fertility treatments, pregnancy outcomes and women’s and children’s health.

Dr. Ramalho-Santos had his pick of several international career opportunities before choosing Sinai Health. “Part of the fascination of being here at Sinai Health, and one of the reasons I’m so attracted to this institution, is the great expertise in place within the maternity clinic here and all the access to clinical data,” he says. “Toronto is clearly a leader in developmental stem cell biology, and it has a community of researchers here that are leaders in their respective fields. It’s such a thriving and vibrant place.” The Canada 150 Research Chairs program, which provides Canadian institutions with a one-time investment to attract world-class scholars and researchers to Canada, was a further incentive.

Dr. Jim Woodgett, Director of Research, is delighted that Dr. Ramalho-Santos chose the LTRI as his new home. “He’s a stellar scientist, he brings expertise in stem cell research to our renowned women’s and infants’ health research group and he will help attract new research talent in the growing field of developmental epigenetics.”

Dr. Ramalho-Santos, who has many creative interests, is looking forward to Toronto’s lively cultural scene. The married father of two was involved in theatre in Portugal and has published two books of creative writing. Also, wherever he’s lived, he’s been a drummer in rock bands — which makes him a rock-star scientist in more ways than one.

Photo credit John Packman

Sinai Health Magazine

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