Scientific community reels at the loss of the world-renowned Tony Pawson -

Scientific community reels at the loss of the world-renowned Tony Pawson

‘We were anticipating one day a Nobel Prize for this guy,’ colleagues say


TORONTO – Tony Pawson, a world-renowned Canadian researcher whose discovery about how cells talk to each other transformed scientists’ fundamental understanding of cancer and many other diseases, has died. He was 60.

Pawson, chair of molecular oncology at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, died late Wednesday of an undisclosed cause.

His death has stunned and saddened the scientific community both in Canada and abroad, long-time colleagues said Friday.

“Tony’s passing represents a profound loss for Canada’s scientific community and will be felt throughout the international medical research world,” Dr. Jim Woodgett, director of the institute, said in a statement.

“All of us here at Mount Sinai Hospital are deeply saddened. He was an extraordinary colleague, brilliant mind and dear friend. His research team … has revolutionized our understanding of how cells work and his legacy will always be felt here as we continue to pursue his lifelong dedication to discovery.”

Fellow scientist and close friend Alan Bernstein, head of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, said Pawson would have been a likely candidate for a Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology because his sentinel research laid the groundwork for discoveries by other scientists.

In 1990, Pawson’s team first reported on key protein interactions involved in “signal transduction” — or how cells communicate and control each other’s behaviour through chemical signals. Miscommunication among cells can give rise to such diseases as cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

“Tony really uncovered a fundamental mechanism by which cells in our body communicate with each other,” said Bernstein. “And breakdowns in that mechanism — whether it’s in cancer or diabetes or in neurological or embryonic development — quite often involve this mechanism that Tony discovered.”

Pawson’s insight paved the way for the development of designer medications such as Gleevec, a drug that locks out an abnormal cell signal that causes chronic myelogenous leukemia, a form of blood cancer. Other drugs based on the same principle are also in the works.

“He’s just been transformative in Canadian science and really had an impact on how patients are treated currently and will be in the future,” said Sian Bevan, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society, which helped fund much of his work.

“It’s very shocking news,” she said of his death, “and we’re really saddened that we’ve lost one of our great scientists in the family.”

Michael Wosnick, former head of research at the Cancer Society, called Pawson’s passing a “huge loss” for the global scientific community and for Canada.

“One of the things he did for Canada, ironically, was stay in Canada. This is a guy who could have written his own ticket anywhere … and the fact that he chose to stay here speaks volumes,” said Wosnick.

The British-born Canadian was the recipient of numerous awards, including Japan’s “Nobel” — the Kyoto Prize — in 2008. He was also honoured with the Wolf Prize in Medicine and the Gairdner Foundation International Award, as well as being named by the Queen in 2007 to the Order of the Companions of Honour.

“We were anticipating one day a Nobel Prize for this guy,” said Wosnick. “Tony certainly would have been the odds-on favourite to be the next Canadian (to win).

“I think Tony should have won the Nobel and I think would have in time,” agreed Bernstein, who described his friend — a fly-fishing aficionado away from the lab — as being passionate about science and “pretty well everything.”

“He was a lot of fun to be around. He was exceptionally bright and articulate. He cared about his family deeply.”

Pawson’s wife Maggie died of lung cancer two years ago, and Bernstein and others said he had never fully recovered from her loss. He is survived by two adult children and a stepson.

Despite his international stature in the scientific world, Pawson was described repeatedly as unpretentious, even humble.

“He was very proud of his work, he was very proud of the people in his lab who did the work,” said Bernstein, adding that Pawson trained numerous scientists who have gone on to research institutions around the world.

“But in terms of his overall place in the universe, yeah, I think he was a modest guy.”

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Scientific community reels at the loss of the world-renowned Tony Pawson

  1. And the country hasn’t heard of him before this because……….?

    • our media is too busy reporting on royal babies, celebrities and product placements.

      • Yeah, I think you nailed it.

      • The media is not entirely to blame. They provide a product the rubbernecking public wants.

        Rose DiManno said it best in a commentary about Tiger Woods:

        “Given the celebrity culture in which he’s thrived, can it truly be possible that Woods doesn’t grasp the rule-of-thumb definition for “news”: The extraordinary events that happen to ordinary people and the ordinary events that happen to extraordinary people.”

        Royal babies and stories about Lindsay Lohan are “the ordinary events that happen to extraordinary people”, whereas Lac Megantic and African Rock python deaths are “the extraordinary events that happen to ordinary people.”

        Sadly, these are the stories that sell papers, attract viewers, boost ratings, and generate revenues.

        • Well you can get all self-righteous and blame the customer, or you can make the country care.

          Which method ensures your survival as a business?

  2. In 2005 I spent a week at Pawson’s research institute interviewing him and his colleagues for a four-page article on controversies over genomics funding. Since then I have used Pawson as more or less synonymous with “excellent cell biologist,” here and in the UWO Alumni Gazette. In 2009 when he won the Kyoto Prize I quoted at length from his acceptance speech and wrote: “I’m told by people who know this stuff better than I do that his research on how cells communicate with one another may already have won him his Nobel.”

    On Jan. 1 2010 the Globe called Pawson one of its ten Canadian “Nation Builders of the Decade.” André Picard called him a “giant” with a “gift” an an “eloquent ambassador” for science. Other recipients of the same nation-builder distinction included Mike Lazaridis, Rick Hillier and Clara Hughes.

    In 2007 André Picard wrote a Globe column with the headline “The real superstar of the cancer fight.” It was about Pawson, “one of the world’s finest scientists,” and ran for 800 words on the front of the Life section.

    Six weeks ago the Lunenfeld Research Institute became the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute because the president of the Maple Leafs is named Tanenbaum and he gave Mount Sinai $35 million because Jason Blake, a Leafs player, survived cancer thanks to a Tony Pawson breakthrough. I know this because it was in the papers. Six weeks ago.

    Six months ago Pawson had a guest column in the Globe, under Jeff Simpson’s, on funding Canadian science.

    When Pawson won the Kyoto Prize, the Star reported that Ontario’s government was matching his prize money. The same year the Star ran a 1,000-word Q&A with Pawson (“considered one of the finest researchers in the world….Some believe the Nobel Prize in medicine will come next”) and CBC Radio reported on Pawson and Charles Taylor winning simultaneous Kyoto Prizes. For news audiences in less lofty precincts, the Toronto Sun also reported on Pawson’s Kyoto Prize (the first, with Taylor’s, that any Canadian had ever won), calling him “one of the most influential medical researchers in the world” in what was, for that paper, a long feature.

    So I don’t know about “the country,” but if some people haven’t heard of him it might be because they weren’t paying attention.

    • When the media wants the country to know about something… make sure
      it does. We can see you’re capable of it.

      Gawd knows we couldn’t have missed the royal baby even if we’d hidden in a cave.

      We couldn’t miss Hadfield either. And you saw how people responded. Until then a lot of people were unaware we even still had a space program! So they certainly wouldn’t know it has funding problems.

      But there was completely different coverage for Pawson….and yes, maybe one in a million Canadians has ever heard of him. A random item here and there over time doesn’t do it.

      We’ve had scientists marching on Parliament hill….this is unheard of,
      literally ….so probably as many people know about that as know about Pawson.

      Science, the search for knowledge…in the knowledge age…is vitally important
      to this country and to our future. Far more important than baby princes elsewhere.

      The protest should have had Second Coming headlines across the country.

      The stifling of knowledge is so important it should be covered in the
      constitution…..yet probably most Canadians have never realized this is
      happening….hard to pick out ‘minor’ coverage in the barrage of trivia, celebrity news, random polls, cheery military press releases, recipes, and the other muck that makes up daily information.

      Perhaps because you’re on the scene in Ottawa, and it’s your daily bread you
      assume everyone knows what you do….but for most people news coverage means headlines on the radio on the way home….a quick glance at a newspaper. during the day…or falling asleep in front on the telly.

      So you don’t have to cover ALL the news….but you do have to prioritize.

      News here from out of the UK recently….other than the baby and other royal
      appearances….was about porn laws. That we heard about. Porn?

      But unless Canadians take a special interest in the UK….very few know that
      Cameron is specifically setting up his country as a science mecca.

      The UK will award £1million to the person who solves humanity’s biggest problem. £1million!

      They are promoting GM food. Education is being upgraded so that children will be learning fractions at 5. The govt has made a list of 8 things the UK can research and work on. They will ‘pioneer eight key areas of science – everything from robotic cars to synthetic organisms to strange new materials.’

      They even rip their NHS when it’s falling down on the job. When people are dying unnecessarily due to poor care, or misdiagnoses.

      Why can’t we do any of this?

      Even the US is promoting science, education and people like Neil deGrasse Tyson.

      We don’t get any of this kind of thing….news, comparisons, advocacy….and
      most of all, information. It encourages innovation, competition…it informs…it doesn’t put people to sleep….or recycles separatism, or worries about beards or horse races.

      We all know the media is in trouble, particularly the print media.

      So if you want any kind of following ever again, the answer is not to get
      sniffy with people who complain about coverage of important matters and people….the answer is to PROVIDE better coverage.

      Don’t scold the customer….basic rule of business….do a better job.

      • The “basic rule of business” is to sell the customer what they want. Look at People’s subscription rates versus those of Scientific American. That is what the customer wants, and no amount of “scolding” by more scientifically minded reporters will make that fundamental dynamic change.

        • Customers usually don’t know what they want.

          It’s up to the business to do a selling job….not cop out by being lazy and doing the easiest thing.

          We could put executions on TV and get an audience….would that be a good thing?

          Do we want the society of the movie ‘Idiocracy’?

          • “Customers usually don’t know what they want.

            The reason I picked magazine subscriptions for my metric is because those ARE customers who know what they want: they’ve made an active decision to pay for a magazine that caters to their interests. There are far fewer people whose interests are in the sciences than celebrity gossip.

            “It’s up to the business to do a selling job….not cop out by being lazy and doing the easiest thing.”

            You have no idea what a business is, do you? It is their job to make as much money as possible with the least amount of investment.

            “Do we want the society of the movie ‘Idiocracy’?”

            I’d say those who rely on the profit motive of private media conglomerates to replace their own curiosity and good sense, are already there.

      • I think you have to think about how few people are willing to do a lot of thinking and remembering about things that are confusing. And I thank Macleans for being willing to make an investment there. No, the majority of people are busy with other things, many of them things we can’t do without.
        But that doesn’t make them inferior.

        • Then it’s time people stopped being lazy…or Canada is going to get left in the dust.

          ‘A steady, secure life somewhere in the middle—average—is over.’ Tyler Cowen.

          • I actually can’t think of anything lazier than to write 7,075 blog comments about how lazy everyone else is.

          • Really? Well I’m working at a full-time job while I’m boosting your comment rating. This is the stuff I do on breaks and pauses.

            Stop being so pissy with everybody…the correct phrase is ‘thank you’

          • No. The correct phrase is what I wrote. And I’m not being pissy with everyone, I’m warning you, EmilyOne, that your towering contempt for just about everyone here, amply demonstrated over thousands of comments, is chasing away thoughtful discussion and drawing herds of mirror-image trolls like locusts, so I am telling you now to stop. Is that clear enough?

          • You are often pissy with commenters….I’m hardly the only one. You invite comments here, and you get them. Many posters have a higher count than I do.

            Did you think everyone would agree with everything said at Macleans?

            Do you want magazine sales or don’t you? The print media is sinking fast. Maybe it’s because of print journalism?

            I haven’t contempt for anyone….that sounds like projection on your part. I do have contempt for attitude. I prefer meritocracies to mediocrities.

            No one is being driven away….the ratings are up.

            Oh you’re quite clear….apparently no one else is supposed to be.

          • EmilyOne is a singular proximal demonstrative.

          • Mr. Wells?
            I am surprised you would let this EmilyOne bully goad you. She’s a right dullard. Her command of The Queen’s is sufficient enough in itself to betray her questionable intellectual aptitude. I mean, she ends sentences in prepositions for Heaven’s sake! As you well know, ending a sentence in a preposition, or a phrasal verb which mimics a preposition, is something up with which Sir Winston(1) will not put!

            (1) World-renowned Statesmen Sir Winston Churchill.

          • This is how you deal with EmilyOne:

            • a day ago

            “……..Harper says Canada is not a country where people are jailed or killed for their political positions or for engaging in certain consensual acts between adults…….”

            Did the Prime Minister actually append the modifier “certain” to the phrase “consensual acts between adults”?
            Dear oh dear!
            Please to list the other consensual acts between adults which would result in a custodial sentence?

            If one holds the “political position” that the Holocaust did not occur or seeks membership in the political wing of Hamas, rightly or wrongly, is one not jailed in Canada?

            EmilyOne to fred
            • a day ago

            Canada has Nazis and KKK….it’s not illegal.

            fred to EmilyOne
            • 6 hours ago

            You missed my point entirely. You do not seem to me to be particularly thick, perhaps you are just not trying hard enough?

            EmilyOne to fred
            • 5 hours ago

            You can’t make a point when you’re wrong to begin with.

            fred to EmilyOne
            • 4 hours ago

            Dear oh dear.
            It just goes to show the utter folly of teaching people to read and write. Perhaps in your case it has nothing to do with ‘trying hard enough’? For instance, try as I might, I would not beat Usain Bolt in a 100 meter foot race. A girl’s got to know her cognitive limitations.

          • So just to get this straight, you wish to be thanked because you are prolifically insulting as opposed to only being occasionally insulting?

          • Pixellating 7,075 blog comments is hard work!

            Still, with the author having to append the phrase “world-renowned” to Mr.Tony Pawson’s name, then he actually isn’t world renowned, now is he? One never sees “world-renowned Nelson Mandela” does one? When Alex Colville died, the CBC was kind enough to let its viewers know that not only was he Canadian, but he was a famous Canadian painter to boot! Cory Monteith did not have the word “famous” appended to his name on CBC reports of his death.

          • I am confident that there are any number of people highly accomplished in fields with which I am not familiar that are justifiably renowned – which isn’t a perfect synonym for “famous” – around the world. I had not before heard of Tony Pawson. I’m happy to remedy my ignorance, not blame the media for not having done so sooner, nor blame them for failing to meet standards that do not logically apply in their field. As it happens, I know some scientists that are world-renowned. I’d be very surprised if many, if any non-scientists had heard of them, including people who pay more attention to these things such as Mr. Wells.

          • “……..I’m happy to remedy my ignorance,……”

            As am I sir, as am I.

            Why bother being alive if you stop learning new things?
            My point was that it is sad that The Media feels it is necessary to inform its viewers/readers/listeners that someone or something is ‘famous’ or ‘world-renowned’. It is as if we would not otherwise be interested or we bloody well should be interested because it’s famous and Canadian! AND the decision as to which events/people garner this adjectives. And I must say, the Media is pretty good at determining which events/people need these modifiers.

          • You’re determined that people are either good or bad – ‘lazy’.

    • Paul,

      To be entirely fair, there is some truth to what your respondents are saying. Tony may be a bad example since he was arguably one of the most known and certainly one of the most celebrated scientists we have had in recent times. You can see from my own tribute that I held him in the absolute highest regard so what I am going to say should in no way diminish the awe I had for him. But there are lots more Tony’s out there that no one has heard of. Perhaps not exactly in his “stratosphere” but Canada punches well above its weight by almost any international standard, especially in cancer research where I am most plugged in. But other than the “breakthroughs”. most of which are over-hyped and over sensationalized and are not in fact “breakthroughs” we do not treat our scientific community the way we do other much less deserving celebrities. For every mention in the media of a Jenny McCarthy or a Gwyneth Paltrow, how many times do we hear about a great scientist, on a level that helps us to get to know them and really spark an interest not just in their work but in all of science?

      I don’t think it’s the media’s fault – I think the public get what they ask for. We would rather hear Suzanne Somers talk about nonsense than to actually hear about real science and real scientists.

      The media (and you are a prime example of one of the good guys) can put the good stories out there but I don’t think the pick-up has much depth since there is very little (perceived!) sizzle to these real world heroes. We are too consumed with Shark Week nonsense or Honey Boo Boo or who is being racist on Big Brother.

      Because I have had the privilege to work side by side some of the greatest cancer researchers in this country for over 2 decades, I continue to be in awe of how brilliant, hard-working, imaginative and creative they are. How they selflessly toil in the trenches, trenches that hardly anyone ever hears about.

      We may scratch our heads about why so many people seem not to have heard of Tony Pawson. But we should not confuse that with thinking that the public are science aware, or scientist-aware in the slightest.

      I could name you dozens of folks that are absolute international Rock Stars in cancer research. I bet no one outside of cancer research would recognize many, if any. And that is very sad….

      Until you take some gadget or technology, or cancer treatment or other scientific advance away from the public, that is. Then they get it…..

      • Do any of these scientists get covered on Quirks and Quarks? It’s the only ‘mainstream’ show I know of that regularly interviews non-celebrity scientists. The midday Saturday time slot is awkward, though; it might work better in the evening.

    • Most Canadians hadn’t heard of Dr. Pawson because he was a dedicated scientist, which probably left little time for events or engagements which would have brought him public attention.

    • Thanks Paul for taking on a wide verity of topics. While there is a demand for you to do more do not let it go to your head and clone yourself ;)