On September 1, Dermot Kelleher will become the next Dean of the UBC Faculty of Medicine.
Dr. Kelleher was the Vice-President Health and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, and was simultaneously Dean of the Lee Kong Chian Medical School in Singapore. Before that, he was Head of the School of Medicine and Vice Provost for Medical Affairs at Trinity College, Dublin.
He earned his bachelor’s of medicine degree (the equivalent of an MD) from Trinity in 1978, and went on to specialize in gastroenterology. As he pursued his clinical career, he delved into the science of mucosal immunity, specifically, the immunogenetics of celiac disease. He earned an MD (a degree by thesis similar to a PhD) from Trinity in 1994, based on work he did in Dublin and the University of California, San Diego, on T-cell regulation in Crohn’s Disease. His subsequent research led to patents of vaccine targets for Helicobacter pylori and Clostridium difficile.
Dr. Kelleher will succeed Gavin Stuart, who has been Dean of the Faculty of Medicine since 2003, and who also took on the role of Vice Provost, Health in 2009.
During one of his visits to British Columbia before assuming his position, Dr. Kelleher answered a few questions about his career, his life, and his interests.
You started out as a dentistry student. What attracted you to that, and why did you switch to medicine?
I left high school and enrolled for university at a young age – 16. I knew I wanted to do something that involved my hands, and wanted intellectual stimulation. I thought dentistry would be interesting, and planned to go straight into practice. At Trinity College, the dental students shared classes for the first two years with the medical students, and I quickly realized that my interests lay in the broader areas of medicine, especially biochemistry and applied physiology. So I changed course in my third year. It’s a decision I never regretted.
And then, after earning your medical degree, you chose to stay in academia. Why?
During my medical school clerkship, I fell under the tutelage of Dr. Donald Weir, the Head of the Department of Medicine. His ward rounds were fantastic – every case was a puzzle, he discussed all of the mechanisms underlying each case, and he encouraged the students to question and contribute to the rounds as equal members. He became a mentor to me, and since he was an out-and-out academic, it became clear to me that I was going to go in an academic direction, too.
What do you consider to be the three most important health research discoveries or innovations since 2000?
- The realization that an increasing number of “driver mutations” in cancer cells are responsible for tumour progression. The challenge now is to find new ways to target tumours based on these drivers and to stop resistance to treatment from developing,
- The discovery of RNA inhibition. That discovery opened up a whole new level of understanding of how genes are regulated.
- CRISPR genome editing technology. It’s a technology that allows for creation of the next generation of sophisticated animal models of disease.
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) was an old favourite, though I haven’t seen it in 20 or 30 years. As a young man I used to write film reviews for the student magazine. I’m also a fan of Richard Linklater’s films, especially his most recent one, “Boyhood.”
Your most memorable moment as a scientist?
Discovering that the protein kinase C beta enzyme is a key driver for lymphocyte migration. You could describe it as the sparkplug that starts the engine allowing white blood cells to move throughout the body. Blocking this kind of movement would enable us to repress inflammation, in conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, or rheumatoid arthritis. Some drugs have been developed to block such cell migration and they’re hugely effective, but they also have potentially fatal side effects. So, our challenge is to isolate further components of the signalling pathway within the cell, so that we can prevent some lymphocytes from migrating while allowing others to do their work.
How do you blow off steam?
I go to the gym, I run, I cycle. I’m a keen fan of soccer both as a spectator and a player; if anybody wants an old guy like me, I’d be delighted to sign up. You can also expect to see me at Whitecaps games!
What was your proudest accomplishment as Dean at Imperial College?
Opening the Lee Kong Chian Medical School in Singapore – an alliance between Imperial and the Nanyang Technological University that created the first new undergraduate medical school in Singapore in over 100 years. I became Dean of both schools, on two continents, simultaneously. The school opened with a completely new and innovative curriculum and a strong research agenda – we were able to recruit some superb international scientists.
I also oversaw the renewal of Imperial’s designation as an Academic Health Sciences Centre. We had to compete with other medical schools to retain that designation, which is held by only five other institutions in the U.K.
Will it be a challenge to be a medical school dean in an entirely new health care system?
I’ve already worked in two health care systems, in Ireland and the U.K. – three if you count Singapore. The Irish one is quite different from the Britain’s National Health Service, and elements of it are much closer to the Canadian system. But when I do walk into something that I didn’t anticipate because of the structure of the system, I’ll rely on my colleagues here to guide me. I’ve already noticed how open the dialogue is between the health care providers here and the university and I’m looking forward to engaging in it.
Did it ever occur to you that you would settle in Vancouver?
Yes, every time I’ve been in the Pacific Northwest. I have visited Vancouver several times before this opportunity came up. The highlights were riding in a seaplane over Burrard Inlet, and taking in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.