One-on-One with Poul Sorensen

More than two decades ago, Dr. Poul Sorensen unearthed a critical discovery in his lab — the detection of a gene mutation in a rare type of pediatric cancer. The finding would not only go on to transform the field of cancer biology, but also lead to the development of a new, life-saving drug for children and adults diagnosed with cancer around the world.

Today, Dr. Sorensen, Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC, is an internationally-recognized cancer biologist.

He was recently appointed as the inaugural Director of the Faculty of Medicine’s newly-established Academy of Translational Medicine (the Academy), which will serve as an innovation hub for health research, bringing together diverse sectors in science, business, health and government in an effort to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries from bench to bedside.

Dr. Sorensen shares his goals and aspirations as the inaugural Director of the Academy, reflects on the top lesson of his career, and reveals his secret talent.

What are your main goals and aspirations as Director, Academy of Translational Medicine?

Right now, we have an incredible opportunity before us to develop a smoother, shorter pathway for translational medicine here in BC.

As we are seeing in real time, the acceleration of the translational medicine pipeline led to the recent development of several COVID-19 vaccines. This achievement has been truly remarkable and inspiring, with several members of our own scientific community contributing to that success.

Together with the research community, industry, funders and partners, the Academy is well positioned to leverage this success to address many of the other health challenges we face in bringing health innovations to the clinic. Our goal is to accelerate timelines so that the benefits of our scientific discoveries and innovations at UBC can be brought to society as quickly as possible.

As a cancer biologist specializing in pediatric cancers, I have seen first-hand how tough it is for an initial discovery to make it to the finish line. Our discovery of gene ETV6-NTRK3 in a rare type of pediatric cancer ultimately led to the development of a new cancer drug. But the path from initial discovery to therapeutic took 20 years!

As the inaugural Director, my job is to guide and provide leadership, while recognizing that the Academy will be an enormous team effort. Collaborating across disease and geographical boundaries, enhancing our technology base, and sharing data will be keys to our success.

Who inspires you and why?

I’m inspired by the many pediatric cancer patients I’ve met along the way and their determination to soldier on. If that doesn’t get you going, then what will? These children inspire me in my lab every day to work harder and deliver interventions that are safe and can improve lives.

What makes UBC so special?

UBC is home to some of the world’s greatest medical scientists and experts. With the establishment of the Academy, we have a real opportunity to bring these people together, enhance our collaboration and partnerships with diverse sectors, including industry and government, and see UBC become a world leader in advancing the translation of scientific discoveries into solutions that can improve patient care.

How do you like to recharge?

Exercise – running, biking, skiing, sailing. I’m also very social, so before the pandemic, you would have found me enjoying time with friends over a beer at the pub.

Perhaps one of my favourite ways to recharge is travelling with my family. We like to parachute into new environments and stay there for a month, learning the language along the way.

First job:

Back in high school, I took my first job working as a construction assistant, helping to frame houses and dig holes. I also learned a lot of interesting new language on the construction site.

Most important lesson you’ve learned in your career:

In the field of biomedicine, I’ve learned you have to follow your passion. At the end of the day, if you want to be really good at something, you have to be obsessive, and you have to work harder than the next person. The best way to do that is to follow your passion because that’s what will ultimately drive your ambition. For me, the pursuit of discovery is my passion.

Secret talent:

I’ve always been very good at reading people — understanding where they’re coming from through unspoken cues. It’s a talent that has helped me become a strong networker.

Favourite spot in BC?

In the winter, my favourite spot is the top of Whistler Peak. In the summer, you’ll find me on my sailboat, anchored in Montague Harbour on Galiano Island.

Published: January 2021