RIP Tony Pawson

'If ever there was a rock star of science ...' Jim Woodgett on a remarkable legacy

(In 2005 I visited the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, as it was then called, at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, to do reporting for a story. I was impressed by the cell biologists I met there, but by none more than Tony Pawson, a soft-spoken Canadian of English origin who was director of the institute. Colleagues told me Pawson had already done the work that would probably one day win him a Nobel Prize. But Pawson died on Wednesday, a shocking loss for biologists in Canada and around the world. 

If a musician or politician of Pawson’s stature had died, just about everyone would understand the scale of his contribution and the resulting loss. Cell biology is trickier for a general audience, so I asked Jim Woodgett, Pawson’s successor as Director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, to explain why Pawson was so important to Canadian biology research. Here’s what Woodgett sent me. – pw)

Canada’s scientific research community is relatively small by international standards but punches well above its weight in many fields, including biomedical research. That’s in large part due to the titanic efforts of Dr. Tony Pawson, who passed away this week.

Although his English roots were instantly betrayed as soon as he spoke, Tony was a proud and enthusiastic Canadian. He won international recognition and accolades, and he leaves a remarkable legacy of scientific excellence. His body of work ranks amongst the most highly cited by other scientists in the world and he has been recognized through numerous awards (for those interested, the collection can be found on his lab website [link:]). He was particularly proud of his Kyoto Prize: he won in 2008, the same year as another Canadian awardee, Dr. Charles Taylor from McGill University. It was a Canadian double-double (out of three awards that year).

The essence of Tony’s work is that he uncovered the basic rules that govern how cells process information. He discovered a small, self-contained protein structure that was responsible for docking two distinct molecules together. He worked out how to recognize these motifs in many other proteins and quickly deciphered a protein-to-protein docking code that defines how, when and where cells assemble and disassemble proteins in response to changes in their environment (such as the presence of hormones such as insulin).

The implications of this Lego-like code system are immense. His team and many others later showed that the code was often disrupted in diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Tony’s insights led to the targeting of the docking sites by drugs. Some of today’s most effective precision cancer therapies are based on his discoveries.

Fundamental concepts often appear almost obvious in hindsight. Biologists now take for granted the existence of modular binding domains. Yet 30 years ago, as he first established a research group at the University of British Columbia and then moved to Toronto with the founding of a new research institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, this was unheard of. His discoveries enabled new fields, new concepts and new therapies.

There are many measures of a scientist’s impact such as their papers, articles and books. A perhaps more endearing measure is mentorship of trainees who have gone on to make their own mark on society. Tony attracted bright minds from all over the world. Many chose to remain in Canada; many biomedical research institutions and universities across this country can proudly claim an alumnus of the Pawson laboratory. Tony also played an instrumental role in building the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. He was my predecessor as the institute’s director. He recruited brilliant scientists to Toronto and nurtured their research.

As in all of his work, he led by example. In conversation or in formal lectures, Tony exuded infectious enthusiasm for research. He matched his talent for cellular communication with electrifying skills in personal communication: he gesticulated, jumped, challenged and performed for his audiences as though his wonderfully symphonic voice was insufficient for the task. He was also a passionate and persistent advocate for basic science. He knew we need a broad spectrum of study, from discovery to application — but railed against the increasingly bandied suggestion that we surely know enough about biology by now to focus on putting that knowledge to work. He effectively countered this argument by repeatedly making startling new discoveries, encouraging his team to ask high-risk questions and letting them follow their noses.

Lastly, Tony adopted not only this country, but also the trait of Canadian humility. He took pains to recognize and celebrate the work of his trainees and colleagues, and the essential support and many sacrifices of his family. He leaves behind three children and his partner, Barb, as well as a global family of researchers, physician-scientists and technicians. While scientists typically do not crave fame, if ever there was a rock star of science, his name would be Tony Pawson.

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