Alberta Cancer Foundation

Weiss Guy

He’s much less Grizzly Adams than you’d expect for a confessed mountain-loving man. “My love of the mountains is the mountains,” Dr. Sam Weiss says. Only when he says it, there is a big, growly emphasis on the “is.” He gets out of the lab or office, destined for Banff, as often as he can. You’ll find him hiking in the warmer, dryer seasons and cross-country skiing in the colder, snowier seasons. But mostly Weiss looks more the part of a clean-cut, science-loving, stem cell expert.

Cells & Science: Dr. Sam Weiss is a man of discovery in the lab and the mountains.
Photo by Bookstrucker Photography

His many titles in the faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary include professor, department of cell biology and anatomy/pharmacology and therapeutics member, genes and development research group and director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. But he keeps his CV simple: “I’m not a physician, I’m just a PhD.”

In 1992, Weiss co-headed a team that found and reported that the adult brain contained neural stem cells. “It was a bit of a serendipitous discovery,” he says, since he was actually studying something else at the time. Stem cells can divide, self-renew and change into specialized cell types, so Weiss’s discovery stirred inquiries throughout the scientific community, mainly questioning if brain injury and disease (including cancer) could be repaired with the use of neural stem cells.

“He has the ability to see the big picture and describe what he’s doing in an exciting way to everybody in the room.”
– Dr. Gregory Cairncross

Weiss’s discovery was big news in 1992. It even appeared in the New York Times. Dr. Gregory Cairncross, a professor in the oncology department at Western University in London, Ontario at the time, read it and started following the work of Professor Weiss at the University of Calgary. The article discussed Weiss’s thesis: could harnessing stem cells in the brain be used after an injury or stroke by reactivating or rewiring the organ in some way to rebuild it? By that time, Cairncross had already written an article about brain stem cells and how cancers of the brain may arise from those cells.

“His science intersected with my ideas of the origins of brain cancer,” Cairncross says, adding that’s why he remembered Weiss and looked him up years later.
Cairncross was recruited for a position, head of the clinical neurosciences department at the University of Calgary, over a decade ago and specifically asked to meet with Weiss when he travelled west for his job interviews – all due to that New York Times article. “He was about the way I thought he would be,” Cairncross says, undaunted by the long wait to meet the scientist. Cairncross knew he had the clinical background and Weiss had science behind him, nudging his suspicions that their knowledge and interests could complement each other. He was right.

They belonged to different departments, maintaining their own research teams for years, until more brain stem cell discoveries around the world triggered Weiss to specialize his studies further, and his connection with Cairncross became closer. Five years ago, Weiss made the decision to direct his entire lab’s focus on studying glioblastoma multiforme (an aggressive malignant brain tumour).

Magnetic Personality: Top students want to be in on Dr. Weiss’s groundbreaking studies.
Photo by Bookstrucker Photography

“I work very closely through my lab with four or five other investigators who are very interested in brain tumours,” Weiss says. His investigative connections span the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute in the faculty of medicine, at least four labs in Calgary and numerous others throughout Alberta, B.C., Quebec and Ontario. This means that, on any given day, Weiss can be found running between his office and his lab, and the offices and labs of his colleagues, and doing all that running around while trying to push forward discoveries, applications, and improve neurological and mental health.
“If you look up ‘team director’ you’ll probably see my picture there,” he says. “Wisely, I’m denied access to direct experimentation.”

On June 5, an $8.2-million grant was presented to Weiss and Cairncross as the principal members of a five-year project to study glioblastomas and the drugs used to treat these tumours. The grant was funded by a large partnership including the Terry Fox Research Institute, The Terry Fox Foundation, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Genome Canada, Genome B.C. and the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

“This grant is about growing brain cancer cells in the laboratory using Sam’s methods and then testing whether they’re sensitive to thousands of different types of drugs,” Cairncross says. The need for the study is because even though brain cancers can look very similar under the microscope, most have different genetic subtypes and require different treatment regimens. Currently, the same drugs are used for all subtypes.

Today’s treatments control glioblastomas (keep patients’ pain levels down and stall additional cancer growth) for a year or two with drugs; Weiss, Cairncross and their network of clinical investigators would like to increase that to five, if not eight, years with newer and more effective drug compounds.

“We have a collective responsibility to do everything in our power to improve the quality of peoples’ lives,” Weiss says. The goal of the newly funded study, he says, is to give patients a longer, more fruitful and enjoyable life with a plethora of available, viable drugs to enable personalized treatment plans.

“I’ve transferred my energies to seeing other people make the next discoveries,” Weiss says. He’s directed his current focus on the bigger picture rather than on individual scientific return. “I believe that is the future of science: its impact on community,” he says.

Cairncross is not surprised Weiss is so successful in science and has become a talent magnet. “He has the ability to see the big picture and describe what he’s doing in an exciting way to everybody in the room,” Cairncross says. “Some of the very best students seek out Sam to work with and many of them have gone on to very successful careers in science after being in Sam’s lab.”

Whether or not his love for science has passed on through his genes is questionable, though. He says, although his almost-18-year-old daughter shares an interest in biology, she’s more inclined to pursue a career in the arts and design. “It’s not up to me to suggest for a moment that she should be like me,” Weiss says. “She could give you a thousand reasons for thinking why she shouldn’t be like me.” He jokes, but he’s worked with enough students to know that people need to determine their own dreams.

Weiss is a lot of things – a mentor, researcher and director of a major medical institution – but a less obvious strength stands out to Cairncross as being Weiss’s best quality. “There are a lot of hardworking people, lots of ambitious people, lots of determined people, lots of people who persevere, but not everyone has that certain quality to notice something important when they trip over it,” Cairncross says.

When other people would just carry on, Weiss turns to get a closer look.

Sam I Am

Why did you become a scientist?
My mother tells me that I was extremely inquisitive as a child and definitely interested in nature and biology and I liked to ask questions. So I guess there was an inclination. But for a while I was inclined as much to go be a ski bum as I was to be a post-graduate student.

Where did you study?
I was an undergraduate in Montreal – I went to McGill University in 1975. I began graduate studies (at the University of Calgary) in 1978 and I had season’s pass at Lake Louise so I was able to effectively balance my personal and professional interests. I graduated with my PhD in ’83. I trained for two years in France, three years in the United States and I returned in ’88 to Calgary, where I’ve been ever since.

Why did you train in France?
I believe in international collaboration and co-operation so I felt that this was a great chance to exercise that concept and it was an absolutely fantastic experience. I learned all about discovery – I also learned about fine wine. I was one of the first post-doctoral fellows funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research to train abroad.

What would your colleagues say about you?
I think their descriptors would focus around energy and ambition. I think most people would say that my positive energy and passion for my work are probably my greatest strengths.

What would your wife and daughter say about you?
If they were talking about my professional perspectives, they would say, ‘He works too hard’ – although I would argue that I do get out to the mountains enough to counter-balance that – ‘but loves what he does, and mostly has a smile on his face when he goes to work.’