It’s in the genes: from student to faculty, how George Charames made his career a success
Dr. George Charames is an Associate Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and is the Director and Head of the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory in Mount Sinai Hospital's Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
We spoke to him about what drove him to become an expert in molecular genetics and what fighter jets and movies had to do with it.
A fascination with science and a need to understand why
“I had an obsession with science growing up”, explains Dr. Charames, “I loved learning about the things that existed around me. I wanted to know why things happen in our bodies.”
This fascination with ‘why’ naturally led to genetics. “I fell in love with genetics early on. Genetics used to be such a small part of medical education. Now it’s intertwined in every disease and every part of our bodies and is a vital part of diagnostics. A seven-foot basketball player could see a doctor about aching joints – through recognizing the shape of his hands and other features, this could be linked to risk of an aortic dissection. Something we only know through genetics and a diagnosis that could save his life.”
At Mount Sinai, genetics has transitioned from being used for fertility treatments and hereditary diseases to a powerful diagnostic tool.
Dr. Charames' research interests are in the development of genomics and proteomics strategies for the improved clinical diagnostics, with a special focus in breast, ovarian and colorectal cancers. His translational research approach aims to improve individualized medicine.
His specific research is developing assays that can give those fighting cancer a final chance. “When patients have a certain disease and have exhausted all therapies available to them, we can do genetic testing which allows us to explore other therapies these patients could then be eligible for as part of a clinical trial.”
“We’re developing a pan-cancer test for all tumors that will pull out novel biomarkers in more than 500 genes through the DNA. It's both genomic profiling as well as an immunotherapy profiling, which doesn't exist in Canada yet at the clinical level. This is what I love – being able to do things that are completely novel and benefit patients here in Canada.”
A determination that paved the way to success
After completing his undergraduate degree at Western University, Dr. Charames wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next, so he returned to Toronto. An opportunity to complete a summer studentship in Mount Sinai Hospital's Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine changed everything for him.
“I loved working in the lab,” he explains, “I knew that’s where I wanted to be, and there and then I decided I would be director of a diagnostic lab one day, and here I am!”
His ambition was backed up with a determination to make the most of himself and he took every opportunity to gain experience.
After his internship, he continued working in the lab as a research technician while he undertook his MSc and PhD in LMP.
A member of LMP’s faculty mentoring committee, he is fully aware of how valuable mentoring is. “I’ve been lucky to have several amazing clinical mentors. They were all different, but what they had in common was that they never settled for just the bare minimum of what was asked of them. That’s something I’ve definitely picked up from them.”
It was also driven into him from a young age that he needed to work hard to make himself stand out. “You're always in competition, in all aspects of your life,” he points out, “It's not good enough to say you finished your master's degree, or you finished your PhD. What else sets you apart? You need to be a well-rounded person who has also experienced life, not just your studies.”
This attitude has meant that Dr. Charames certainly has some interesting stories to tell, from being a reservist medic in the army for 10 years, volunteering at the Canadian International Air Show (and getting to sit in fighter jets), to being a genetic consultant on the 2009 movie ‘Splice’ starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley.
Most of all, his travelling has provided him with a chance to learn about other countries and cultures. With both Jamaican and Greek heritage, he has travelled extensively in Europe and beyond. “I think it opens your eyes a little bit more when you can go travel the world and see how life is elsewhere.”
From student, to alumni, to faculty
After studying in LMP for several years, he moved to the US for a clinical postdoctoral opportunity at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA, but when an opening came up here in Toronto, he knew he had to return.
“LMP is one of the largest departments in Temerty Medicine,” he explains, “Due to it being a merger of several departments there is a broad range of people and research and you can carve your own way. I’m a geneticist and can collaborate with a clinical biochemist or a hematologist without leaving my own department. That diversity is a big draw for me.”
“I love travelling and had a great experience living in the US, but when the chance came up to come back, to raise my kids here, it was a very easy decision to make. I’ve had so much support here in LMP and Mount Sinai, this was definitely my number one choice. Toronto will always be my home.”
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