Behind the Breakthrough

University Health Network

A podcast about the people behind world-leading research at University Health Network, Canada's largest research hospital.

Season 2…coming soon!
Trailer 1 min 47 sec

All Episodes

Pain is often under-diagnosed and under-treated among older adults, especially those with dementia, who have trouble communicating their discomfort. Additionally, approximately 60 per cent of older adults with dementia suffer a fall each year. Dr. Babak Taati is among a group of researchers in Canada aiming to tackle these problems using computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI).   In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, we learn how Dr. Taati’s work involves using ambient monitoring systems to assess and analyze the movement and facial expressions of older adults to detect signs of pain and predict the likelihood of future falls, all while they go about their daily lives. He also discusses the ethical considerations of ambient monitoring techniques, from privacy concerns to working to eliminate ageism and ableism in the technology used.    

Nov 26

34 min 37 sec

Dr. Joan Wither and her team are working on a series of biological tests that will better predict the progression of systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases, such as Lupus and Sjogren’s Disease. She discusses the importance of studying patients at various points throughout the disease, whether in a disease-dormant or flare-up state, which creates somewhat of an immune response timeline and profile.

Nov 18

37 min 58 sec

Nanoscience is the study of the small, the really small. Consider this; a nanoparticle can be as small as one-billionth of a metre. Nanotechnology in medicine is having a moment, with the profile and perception of the approach raised since it played a role in the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. But for Dr. Gang Zheng, the science of the very small and how it can be harnessed in cancer care has been a pursuit of passion for years. In this episode, Dr. Zheng talks us through his development of a unique nontoxic nanoparticle, a porphysome, made by combining lipid or fat particles with a compound derived from pacific algae.  This so-called Swiss army knife of nanoparticles has the potential to significantly improve the way cancers are detected and treated, from targeted drug delivery to ablation of the tumour from within using light. Dr. Zheng also discusses the importance of collegiality and collaboration in science and the pride he takes in mentoring and training the next-gen of doers and thinkers, who in turn have dubbed themselves ‘Gangsters’ in his honour. And how he remains driven by one goal above all others – to make a positive impact on cancer patients' lives.

Nov 12

52 min 12 sec

The COVID-19 pandemic shocked everyone around the world - even those who study viruses such as Dr. Jordan Feld. In 2015, Dr. Feld led a groundbreaking international trial that made the breakthrough discovery of a pill that cures Hepatitis C. When the pandemic hit, he shifted gears and led another pioneering investigation into a treatment for the Coronavirus using Interferon Lambda. After a successful phase one and two trial, it is currently in phase three with more patients enrolled. Compounding the urgency for COVID-19 treatments, Dr. Feld was juggling the approval process for his trial with the birth of his third son. He touches on the impact the pandemic had on research, how his team maintained a safe environment during the trial and what it means to be a mentor.

Nov 8

53 min 10 sec

Chemotherapy works by essentially poisoning cancer cells, which grow more quickly than most normal cells, and thus absorb a lot of the toxic drugs. It has been regarded as a standard treatment in cancer care for decades, and can work wonders, especially early in a person’s treatment. But over time, these drugs may stop working. Dr. Catherine O’Brien and her team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre were trying to figure out how cancer cells apparently become resistant to chemotherapy when they made the discovery that the cells can enter a state akin to hibernation to avoid the toxic onslaught of the drugs. In this episode of the Behind the Breakthrough, Dr O’Brien discusses how her team made this groundbreaking discovery and how it may lead to unique therapeutic opportunities for patients in the future. She also discusses the importance of making connections between different scientific disciplines, and how a Grade 10 career day spent with a female surgeon inspired her to pursue a career in surgery herself.

Nov 1

44 min 46 sec

Transplant patients are among the most vulnerable populations when it comes to COVID-19. A world-first discovery at UHN’s Ajmera Transplant Centre found that a third vaccine dose for transplant patients shows substantially improved protection. Dr. Deepali Kumar, joint-Senior Author on the study, recalls the importance of this groundbreaking discovery. Plus, she discusses the importance of work-life balance, overcoming obstacles and mentorship in research. She draws on her experience of moving from Saharanpur, a city 200 kilometers north of New Delhi in India to Winnipeg, Manitoba at the age of nine, and the bravery her parents had to make that big, life-changing decision.

Oct 25

28 min 5 sec

It was Canada’s worst fear in March 2020—CoVID-19 reached the great white north. With increasing case counts and hospital burden throughout the country and in Ontario, government officials were looking to lean on healthcare economists to predict the impact of the pandemic. Dr. Beate Sander’s research highlights the importance of epidemiological modelling and how it guided public policy in Ontario. With the ever-changing data from around the world, her team highlighted the importance of certain measures to stop the spread. She discusses how the pandemic affects certain populations disproportionally. Plus, she expresses the need for better public data infrastructures, reporting, tracking and analytics to be well prepared in the future.

Oct 18

47 min 23 sec

BTB Season 3 kicks off with a special Covid-19 edition to discuss UHN’s leading edge Covid research and treatment discoveries, the triumphs of basic science to create the vaccines. and - how and when does this pandemic end?

Oct 4

54 min 52 sec

Dr. John Dick is known internationally for his discovery of blood stem cells. His work has broadened understanding of where and why leukemia starts, and what we could do to prevent it. In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, Dr. John Dick takes us behind the scenes on his career, building on the pioneering work of Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch—the first to define the properties of stem cells. He delves into the pivotal moments that led to discoveries that have changed the face of cancer research, and why science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Read more at 

Nov 2020

1 hr 15 min

Almost 20 years ago, a hallway conversation kickstarted Dr. Mansoor Husain’s journey in helping create and test a new diabetes drug that reduces the risk of heart disease. In 2019, the award-winning physician-scientist at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and Peter Munk Cardiac Centre published the findings of a landmark trial proving the drug’s safety and reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality, bringing a new therapy into the fold for patients with diabetes – who are two to four times more likely to die from cardiovascular problems than those without it.  In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, Dr. Husain brings the listener into his lab, where he aims to understand more about the molecular mechanisms behind heart disease. He shares how a Nylon experiment in a high school chemistry class sparked his love for science and ultimately led him to medical school, and what keeps him motivated after 25 years as a scientist.  “I believe that being in the clinic makes a better scientist, and being in the lab makes me a better doctor.” 

Nov 2020

37 min

The stories patients and caregivers tell of the difficulties managing day-to-day tasks stay top of mind for Dr. Alex Mihailidis, an award-winning scientist developing smart home systems to care for and promote the wellbeing of older adults. From robots who support common household activities, floor tiles that monitor blood pressure and sensors that can send a reminder to turn off the stove, Dr. Mihailidis is alleviating the responsibility of care from the patient and caregiver and putting it into the home.  On this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, Dr. Mihailidis journeys through his years of research into smart home technology, with early innovations such as ‘Ed the Robot’ and his current role as Scientific Director of the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence. Dr. Mihailidis also tells the story of how he became a patient at the Toronto Rehab Institute, the hospital where he works, after surviving a 30 foot fall down a cliff. Having to regain his ability to walk and perform daily functions, the tragic event taught him the importance of integrating his research with clinical practice.  “If we can come up with a solution through technology that can help ease the issues older people face, even just a little bit, and make it better not just for the person but the family that supports them...then that’s why I continue to do this.” 

Nov 2020

45 min 4 sec

In 2007, Dr. Ralph DaCosta was in the Princess Margaret Optics Lab researching molecular imaging to better visualize cancer when he made a serendipitous discovery that could revolutionize wound care. Hear about his groundbreaking work in visualizing cancer, his serendipitous discovery that has turned him into an inventor and entrepreneur, and how Terry Fox was the inspiration for his drive to enter cancer research.   In his early career he was awarded the Terry Fox Research Foundation’s New Innovator Grant. “I immediately went back to 1980 watching Terry Fox…to come full circle with that is very personally meaningful to me,” he says. Listen to hear about his career path, what it was like to immigrate to Canada at the age of 6, and more.

Nov 2020

41 min 50 sec

What attracted Dr. Sonya MacParland to the world of science was the possibility of making a discovery no one else has ever made. It’s exactly what she went on to do – the award-winning scientist at UHN’s Toronto General Hospital Research Institute developed the world’s first transcriptomic map of the liver, triggering a paradigm shift in liver research and therapy.   On this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, Dr. MacParland takes the listener through the intricacies of the only organ in the human body with the ability to regenerate itself - the liver. She explains how she and her team mapped the thousands of cells within it, and why they felt it was integral to keep the research open-access for scientists around the world to use as a guide. Dr. MacParland also dives into the personal side of her success as a scientist, sharing how she deals with the failures and pressures of her work and the role mentorship plays in a successful career.  “Being able to do science and discover together on a daily basis is a gift,” says Dr. MacParland. “The fact that I'm able to do this and work with brilliant students, brilliant scientists and wonderful patients is just so fulfilling.” 

Nov 2020

42 min 52 sec

Hand trauma sends more Canadians to the emergency room each year than any other injury, something this episode’s guest refers to as an “unrecognized public health issue.’ Dr. Heather Baltzer joins us to discuss her pioneering research to improve both the treatment and outcomes for people suffering hand trauma, as well as the effect such traumas can have on both the patient and the healthcare system at large. Dr. Baltzer also discusses the importance of mentorship, the role of serendipity in research and recreating The New Yorker Magazine cover depicting an all-female surgical team that turned into a rallying cry for women surgeons around the world. Read more at 

Nov 2020

31 min 27 sec

In this episode, Dr. Pamela Ohashi takes listeners on a journey through groundbreaking advances in immunotherapy, a treatment that activates or triggers your body’s own immune cells to seek out and kill cancer. Dr. Ohashi has witnessed the field blossom into the next frontier in cancer treatment, in part thanks to some of her own discoveries. Listen in to find out what barriers her lab is tackling next, her approach to mentorship, and what she thinks about patients that decide to take part in immunotherapy clinical trials. Read more at 

Nov 2020

28 min 5 sec

Dr. Taufik Valiante joins the podcast to talk about his amazing invention of an implantable computer chip designed to monitor brain waves and stop epileptic seizures before they ever occur. In this compelling and wide ranging interview the award winning UHN neurosurgeon and scientist also talks about burnout in healthcare workers, revealing his struggle with depression and journey to achieve mental wellness.    

Nov 2020

52 min 33 sec

In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, we sit down with Dr. Stephanie Protze, Scientist at UHN’s McEwen Stem Cell Institute, to hear the story of how a high school class field trip to Dresden, Germany, led her to become an award-winning scientist pioneering the creation of new heart cells to restore the heart's pacemaker function. The ultimate goal — to develop biological pacemakers that one day work better than the electronic devices that are the current standard of care.

Oct 2020

30 min 28 sec

EVP of Science and Research and award winning cancer researcher Dr. Brad Wouters on UHN's COVID-19 research, leadership during the pandemic, and anti-vaxxers.  

Oct 2020

46 min 37 sec

Behind the Breakthrough is back! Join us every Tuesday & Thursday starting Tuesday, October 27, 2020 for a brand new Season featuring the people behind world-leading research at UHN. Our first episode features Dr. Brad Wouters, Executive Vice-President of Science and Research at UHN, with a provocative COVID-19 special, exploring leadership during the pandemic, it’s effects on research and his fears over anti-vax influence when a vaccine is finally found.

Oct 2020

1 min 47 sec

In the final episode of Season One of Behind the Breakthrough we hear from Dr. Donald Weaver, Director of the Krembil Research Institute. Dr. Weaver talks about his groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s disease, and explains how drug research works and the challenges of getting to a clinical trial. He also talks about why his response to questions about “What next?” is a cheery “More failure!,” the purpose of his weekly story-telling in team meetings, and talks about his poetry career.

Dec 2019

37 min 16 sec

In this episode of ‘Behind the Breakthrough’ Princess Margaret Cancer Centre scientist Dr. Michael Hoffman explains how he leverages the power and speed of computers to understand the origins of cancer. He says cancer is a disease of the DNA –the genetic code that determines our individual characteristics. Essentially, our DNA acts as a program telling our cells what to do. In the case of cancer the wrong program gets run and cells divide in an unrestricted manner. The goal of Dr. Hoffman’s lab is to determine if there is a way of predicting when the wrong program gets run –before it ever happens. We also learn that from age 4 Dr. Hoffman was in awe of the magic of computers, and how he turned his love for computers into a career in the emerging field of computational biology. He also speaks to the critical importance of training the next generation of cancer researchers, and how he views Twitter as a virtual meeting place for scientific exchange

Dec 2019

31 min 12 sec

Dr. Kristin Musselman is a pioneer in research designed to get patients with partial spinal cord injury up and walking again. She joins UHN’s ‘Behind the Breakthrough’ podcast to talk about her latest research, how it relies heavily on patient input, and the satisfaction of seeing those same patients try new strategies to regain mobility and maintain their balance.

Dec 2019

30 min 23 sec

 Dr. Valerie Wallace is on a mission to reverse blindness. The award-winning senior scientist and co-director of the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at UHN’s Krembil Research Institute sits down with Behind the Breakthrough to discuss the serendipity of science, the curiosity that drives her and the changing landscape of women in STEM. “If you don’t ask the hard questions, you won’t get amazing answers,” she says. Hear more from Dr. Valerie Wallace about her career, inspirations and why she calls herself an explorer.

Nov 2019

35 min 4 sec

In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, we hear from cardiac pathologist and award-winning principal investigator at the McEwen Stem Cell Institute Dr. Michael Laflamme. His mission: to restore the function of injured hearts by replacing scar tissue with healthy heart muscle cells made from stem cells. He shares why it’s important to put your career aspirations to paper early on, what it’s like to co-found a company that’s been acquired for $1US billion, and why researchers should try to be scientifically fearless.

Nov 2019

28 min 23 sec

Growing up, the death of Dr. Jenny Campos’ grandfather from a preventable fall while carrying groceries up a flight of stairs shook her family to the core. Today, it is the driving force behind her research in falls and driving collision prevention in the elderly. By simulating real life challenges in Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s renowned Challenging Environment Assessment Lab (CEAL), Dr. Campos is finding ways to help older adults live well. In this episode, Dr. Campos delves into her pioneering work with virtual reality and motion simulation technologies, how she has learned to find a work-life balance in academia, and why it’s so important to mentor the next generation of young scientists in STEM.

Nov 2019

40 min 14 sec

In the battle to defeat cancer, award-winning UHN researcher Dr. Mathieu Lupien is a modern-day version of the Bletchley Park World War Two codebreakers. Dr. Lupien searches the human genome, trying to crack the origin of how and why cancer starts. He knows deciphering that enigmatic code is one of the keys that will lead to a cure for cancer. He explains how the human genome is like a road map to the inner workings of what makes us, well, us—and the many ways cancer disrupts that journey, and why researchers are now looking at so-called “junk DNA” for the source to cancer’s origins. Dr. Lupien also talks about the Terry Fox loonie he carries in his pocket at all times as a reminder of the commitment and importance of the work done in his lab, how a line in a TV show he watched as a child in Quebec has fuelled his research career,” and his advice for kids who want to go into science.

Nov 2019

47 min 40 sec

In this episode, we sit down with award-winning scientist Dr. Milos Popovic to hear about his transformational shift from aerospace engineering to rehabilitation research, and how it led to his invention of a medical device that restores upper limb mobility to people with paralysis caused by spinal cord injury or stroke.

Oct 2019

32 min 4 sec

In this episode of Behind the Breakthrough, Dr. Camilla Zimmermann talks about how her research has helped change the practice of palliative care from end-of-life care to a more wholistic approach that answers the question, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Dr. Zimmermann refers to herself and her team as “an extra layer of support” to those living with a terminal illness. We hear about how the practice has evolved and the vast potential of a research field that’s still largely in its infancy. Dr. Zimmermann also reveals how the death of her parents when she was a teenager shaped her career, her initial reluctance to admit to colleagues her desire to be a palliative care specialist, and how stigma still hangs on the concept of what is palliative care.

Oct 2019

43 min 22 sec

In this episode, neuroscientist Dr. Karen Davis talks to us about pain. What is it? Can we predict it? What does personality-type have to do with it? She touches on her advancements in pain research, and why her and her team are really scientific baseball players. Play ball!  

Oct 2019

34 min 58 sec

In the first episode of Behind the Breakthrough, we hear from cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross about her pioneering work with artificial intelligence (A.I.), how she handles failure—especially after two rejections from medical school—and how a brush with death brought her closer to her patients than ever before. Dr. Heather Ross is a world-renowned cardiologist, division head of cardiology at Sinai Health System and UHN’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC), and director of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research at the PMCC. Dr. Ross is pioneering research in artificial intelligence to improve the lives of patients suffering heart failure.  

Sep 2019

42 min 7 sec