Attracted to the "Canadian Way"

Martin Duennwald

Martin Duennwald, PhD, has conducted his research around the world. When he was searching for a place to put down roots, he was drawn to Canada’s open, friendly and collaborative research community — something he was unable to find anywhere else.

Originally from Germany, Duennwald received his PhD at the Max Planck Institute at the University of Cologne and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to complete his postdoctoral training in Susan Lindquist’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After that, he led his own research team at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute from 2007 to 2012.

He came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in September 2012 as an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

“I’ve already started many new collaborations here at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in research areas that I never even thought about before, so that’s really exciting,” Duennwald said. “I can contribute my expertise and learn from other researchers here, and that’s not only within the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, but also the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.”

He added that he was pleased to be able to receive a CIHR grant for one of his collaborative projects, laughing that collaborating seems to be “the Canadian way”.

Duennwald's research is focused on how protein quality control and protein folding and misfolding plays into human diseases — specifically neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He and his team are studying the cell and molecular biology of protein misfolding and how a cell reacts to misfolded proteins.

“All of our cells are equipped with a defense-like system that prevents the toxic and detrimental effects of protein misfolding, and these protein quality control systems in our cells somehow fail in neurodegenerative diseases,” he explained. “I want to understand why this happens, and how we might be able to prevent that as a therapeutic approach.”

While Duennwald has always been interested in the scientific process and understanding the connection between aging and neurodegeneration, he stays passionate about his work because of the increasing number of people who are effected by neurodegenerative diseases.

“The number of patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases is a rapidly and dramatically increasing problem. In about 50 years, it would be unsolvable — it would consume the entire budget of a country like Canada for health expenses, and that’s just the financial and social burdens, let alone the personal burdens for families and loved ones,” he said.

Duennwald argues that basic research, like his own, is the best approach for finding a solution because researchers need to find out the basic molecular mechanism underpinning these diseases in order to come out with powerful therapeutic approaches.

In addition to his own research, Duennwald is now a supervisor, which is something he didn’t have the opportunity to do at at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute.

He feels fortunate that he has such a strong group of students in his lab.

"My graduate students show a great deal of enthusiasm for their projects, so that has been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s also been very rewarding, and I think I learn more than they do most days!”