In 1995, when Amadeo Parissenti accepted a position as a “career scientist” at the Northern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre, he bought into the vision that a world-class facility could be built in Sudbury that it could raise the bar in terms of cancer research.
He was offered a leadership role in making that vision a reality, but he had some doubts at first. Not about himself—he was experienced, highly trained, and eminently qualified. But he worried about living in a smaller city without an established health science community.
And he wondered if this almost unknown new facility could actually provide the technological tools needed to do cutting-edge molecular level research.
After a tour of the lab, his doubts disappeared. “Everything was state of the art,” he says. “They had the kind of laboratory every young researcher dreams of working in some day.”
If he committed to the vision, that beautifully equipped lab would be his lab, and scientists already working at the centre would become his colleagues, and if he did his work well, other scientists would follow. He couldn’t wait to get started.
Growing up in Sault Ste Marie, Parissenti “always” knew he wanted to be a scientist. At the public library, he took out books about science and scientists, 12 at a time, the limit.
His first lab was in his bedroom. His best present ever was his first microscope. He took every science course he could in high school. And then, like so many other northern kids, he went south to pursue his dreams.
He earned his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Guelph, then went on to York University in Toronto for a double-barrelled PhD.
From there it was Harvard for a year, and the University of Toronto for another year, both on prestigious fellowships.
He was happy to find an opportunity to return to Northern Ontario. He wasn’t sure, however, how his wife would feel about it.
“My wife thinks Manhattan is just a nice-sized town. I thought, oh my gawd!”
Barbara Parissenti was willing to give Sudbury a chance. She found a job in the reference library at Cambrian College while her husband went to work in his new lab and started to think creatively about fighting cancer.
His work at Harvard had been focused on diabetes. In Toronto he did research on on cystic fibrosis.
“But training in biochemistry and molecular biology can be used to conduct research related to pretty much any disease or biological phenomenon.” So, in Sudbury he switched his focus to cancer.
“I found the whole notion of cancer, an uncontrolled proliferation of cells in our bodies fascinating and disturbing.”
Disturbing, too, the knowledge that tumours can become resistant to many cancer treatments, including chemotherapy. He needed to find out why.
Productive research needs a surrounding scientific community for input and support. Such a community started coming together locally in 1991, when a team of scientists at the Sudbury Regional Hospital (when it was still Laurentian Hospital) performed the first stem cell transplantation procedure in Canada.
A year after Parissenti arrived, a team at the cancer research centre was the first in the world to to begin growing stem cells in a laboratory setting.
Today, health scientists abound in Sudbury, most of them within the hospital, university, medical school complex.
“This city is full of gems,” says Parissenti, referring to this local pool of scientific expertise. “When we’re all working together, we’re particularly effective.”
In the PhD-eat-PhD world of scientific research, only 15 percent of all research applications get funded. And that 15 percent includes all the big names who get the big grants. Lesser researchers, the new kids in the labs, make their applications and hope for crumbs.
It was different for Parissenti. He had funding right from the beginning. Thanks to start-up money from Cancer Care Ontario, while other able young researchers were still looking for their first grant, he had the freedom to think independently in his own laboratory. When the start-up fund was exhausted, the Northern Cancer Research Foundation (NCRF) stepped forward with the money needed to keep his research going.
The mandate of the NCRF is to fund cancer research in Northern Ontario, and that’s exactly what it does. Every penny collected in donations is used to fund research by Sudbury scientists.
As in so many other areas of human endeavour, in scientific research, funding begets funding. Because he started out with financial backing, Parissenti was able to get other grants. Gradually, every dollar that came into his lab from the NCRF became good for five more in provincial and national funding. The money was used to keep his lab on the cutting edge technologically and to hire more people.
His first team consisted of himself and one graduate student. Today eight people work with him. He describes them as “talented clinical researchers who are willing to dream that we can make a difference in the lives of cancer patients.”
Sudbury has certainly been good for his research. By thinking outside the box in the laboratory, Parissenti has made what promises to be a significant diagnostic breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancer. He has developed a test that could save many women from needless suffering and improve their chances of survival.
Successful clinical trials have been conducted here in Sudbury, and he has “a huge team of collaborators” who are carrying out more trials at Sunnybrook Hospital, McMaster University, the London Health Sciences Centre, and the University of California at San Francisco.
It was funding from the NCRF, he says, that made it possible. “It was critical to my success and is still critical to the success of most of the scientists with whom I work.”
While doing basic research, he was also immersed in the Chair project, the NCRF board’s drive to establish a Chair in Cancer Research in partnership with the regional hospital, the cancer centre, and Laurentian University. He had been been hired because he was seen as the ideal person to lead that project.
“Amadeo understood our vision,” says Maureen Lacroix of the NCRF, “and he had the patience to see it through. Under his guidance, the project has resulted in enhanced research infrastructure at the hospital, the creation of a PhD program in biomolecular science at Laurentian University, and, in 2008, the graduation of Laurentian’s first PhD candidate. He has fulfilled our expectations and then some.”
The Chair in Cancer Research was established in 2000 and occupied until 2008 by Parissenti, who may have started out with doubts about Sudbury, but seems to have found his niche.
Today he is a full professor at Laurentian University and a full professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. He mentors students. He raises funds. He’s produced important studies, written articles for learned journals, and won international recognition for his work. He serves on prestigious national committees and is one of those scientists who gets to read other people’s grant applications and help decide who gets funding.
Any concerns the Parissentis had about living in a small city have also long been put to rest. They enjoy the city’s cultural scene and attend Sudbury Theatre Centre productions, the Sudbury Symphony, and Cinéfest.
When Barbara starts to feel a yearning for a really big city and her husband starts thinking about how much he would enjoy visiting some of his family in Europe, the two of them sit down together and plan their next holiday. To Italy and France, with stopovers in Paris or Venice, perhaps. Soaking up history, architecture, and opera.
And then coming back home again to Sudbury. Where everything is new. And tomorrow may bring another breakthrough in the understanding and treatment of cancer.
***For many years breast cancer specialists have wished for a test that would identify, before treatment begins, women who will not respond to chemotherapy so that they could be moved quickly to alternative treatments. This would save them from suffering the debilitating side effects of chemo and from wasting precious treatment time on a therapy that won’t work for them. A test developed by Parissenti does just that. In an agreement with him, the method has been patented by Laurentian University and a licence to the technology has been granted to a new-start-up company based in Sudbury in collaboration with York Medtech Partners of Toronto. This company (RNA Diagnostics, Inc.) is helping fund additional clinical trials to validate the method.