Director’s Message

Dr. Torsten Nielsen

Having been renewed in my position as MD/PhD Program Director in 2021, I am proud of the accomplishments Associate Director Liam Brunham, Program Coordinator Jane Lee and our committee have made, including record sizes for both our graduating and incoming classes!

For those of you who don’t know me, here is a bit of my story. I grew up in North Vancouver, across the street from Cates Park. As a child, I was inspired by Terry Fox to dedicate my life to cancer research. During my undergrad in biochemistry at UBC, I worked in several labs, and decided that if I wanted to do research that really impacts on cancer care I should train rigorously in both medicine and science. I spent most of the 1990s at McGill University as a student in their combined MD/PhD program, completing my PhD in DNA replication biology at the McGill Cancer Centre. I was fascinated with new molecular genomic technologies, but after some time on the oncology wards I realized that most of the action translating molecular biology into clinical care is poised to happen first and most directly in diagnostics, before it leads to new drugs and treatment. So, I decided on a residency in Pathology, given its clinical focus on cancer and the world class opportunities we have in British Columbia to link cancer specimens and health care data to genomics research from UBC and from international collaborators. My MD/PhD gave me opportunities to succeed in translational research as a resident, which ultimately secured a faculty position for me with 75% protected research time and UBC, VGH and BC Cancer as my employers. Since 2003, I have held competitive funding from Canadian and US agencies for my research programs studying breast cancer and sarcomas – the very type of disease my hero Terry Fox had, which has even become my clinical specialty! Some of my accomplishments including bringing four new sarcoma diagnostics into clinical use, developing a breast cancer molecular subtype and risk classifier to the point of FDA approval and clinical implementation in 19 countries, and basic science programs that have led to new trials in synovial sarcoma and new treatments for tenosynovial giant cell tumor and epithelioid sarcoma.

Every bit as importantly, I have been carrying forward the work of our founding director Anthony Chow and long time director Lynn Raymond, who created and developed the UBC MD/PhD program. Our mandate is to provide openings and mentorship for a new generation of bright young people to pursue their dreams to become clinician-scientists themselves, in any of the many areas of medical need and scientific opportunity available in this emerging age of big data that is affecting all fields. We welcome applications from Canadian citizens and permanent residents interested in any form of health-related research that can be undertaken at any of the UBC-affiliated research institutes in Vancouver, or indeed at our partner university-affiliated training programs in Kelowna, Prince George or Victoria! As Director, I hope to maintain the excellence of this flagship program, while working to grow it further – so that even more of Canada’s best and brightest can bring their talents to bear on the task of harnessing the power of science and technology to protect and improve the health of people in British Columbia and worldwide.