Research Awards

Dr. Lynn A. Megeney

Winner of the Dr. Michel Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award (2010)
at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

Even from a young age, Lynn Megeney was used to going against the grain. Almost everyone in his Nova Scotia family made their living in mining, the military or police work, but when Lynn had to choose a specialty at St. Francis Xavier University, he went into science. He originally thought about becoming a medical doctor, but his studies in cell biology piqued his curiosity and he got hooked on the world of research, where he could test ideas in the laboratory and push the boundaries of human knowledge every day.

As a Senior Scientist in the Regenerative Medicine Program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), Dr. Megeney has continued to push scientific boundaries whenever he could. Most recently this has involved questioning the concept of "programmed cell death". For decades, researchers thought that this process had evolved to protect multi-cellular organisms like humans from threats such as cancer. The theory was that if a cell started to show signs of becoming cancerous, an internal molecular switch would cause it to self-destruct before the cancer could grow and threaten the rest of the organism. This explanation never quite sat right with Dr. Megeney, because the same programmed cell death genes were present even in single-celled organisms such as yeast, which don't get cancer.

For the last decade, Dr. Megeney and his team have stubbornly looked for alternative roles for the so-called cell death genes. Even after the Nobel prize was awarded for programmed cell death, Dr. Megeney refused to believe that the whole story had been unravelled. His research was considered so heretical at one point that colleagues would walk out of the room when he presented at international conferences.

Earlier this year, Dr. Megeney and his team finally made their breakthrough, publishing a series of experiments that prove that programmed cell death genes are also crucial for the development of new tissues, such as muscle. Specifically, he showed that muscle stem cells activate the cell death pathway (including genes that cut up DNA) but instead of dying, they undergo a transformation that eventually results in the production of new muscle tissue. In recent months, Dr. Megeney has also found that cell death genes have a role in helping yeast cells live longer. There are still many unanswered questions, but these discoveries have completely transformed the scientific community's thinking about programmed cell death, and more broadly, about the evolution of multi-cellular life. The research also has major implications for the development stem cell and cancer therapies.

In addition to his role at OHRI, Dr. Megeney is also an Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa. He also holds the Mach Gaensslen Chair in Cardiac Research.