Lunch With... Dr. Benjamin Neel, Director of the Ontario Cancer Institute

07/08/2011 03:53 EDT | Updated 09/07/2011 05:12 EDT

The company:

Dr. Benjamin Neel is the director of the Ontario Cancer Institute at the University Health Network and Princess Margaret Hospital. He has been in this post for over four years, coming from Boston where he had been working for over 20 years. Specifically, Dr. Neel is the senior scientist in the Division of Stem Cell and Developmental Biology, studying stem signaling, looking for a cure for all types of cancer.

I don't know anyone who hasn't had cancer affect a person that they love, so I really was interested in speaking with someone on the front lines. I checked out the Princess Margaret Hospital online and requested a lunch with Dr. Neel through the site. This lunch has been about three months in the making -- as Dr. Neel is extremely busy -- so I was really glad to finally sit down and chat.

The lunch lesson:

It was great for me to hear that a big part of Dr. Neel's life is collaborating with other researchers around the world. In the next few weeks, he is going to Switzerland and Germany. He says people think it's super competitive between researchers but really, there is strong collaboration. He said there are things he can do that they can't do in Switzerland and vice versa. So they work together and learn from each other. Of course, there is a level of competition, which is a good thing because it often forces people to do better -- but I was glad to hear that researchers around the world are not all working in isolation. The more minds we have together on a problem, the faster, I think, a solution will come to be.

The lunch:

Before I begin to write about this lunch, I have to admit up front that I know nothing about medical research. I mean I read the paper and listen to news about new treatments but I don't know a lot about the findings along the way, which as Dr. Neel pointed out, is usually how these things work. So this was a huge learning experience for me.

Dr. Neel talked about how there is a real misconception in the public that research is about big breakthroughs in the lab. What it's really about is building upon findings over the course of years and even decades. Something that was discovered in the 80s, built upon in the nineties could then be built on again this year and provide a new clue or treatment. If we do go back a few decades, Dr. Neel pointed out, huge steps have been made. Cancers such as childhood leukemia used to be nearly universally fatal and today are pretty curable. But it's other cancers where progress has been slower such as breast, lung and brain. It is these cancers that perhaps in 10 to 15 years we will see more advances.

When I get stressed out, I often say to myself, "I'm not saving lives here" just to put my stress level in perspective, calm down a bit and in the end be more efficient. But as Dr. Neel was explaining his extremely hectic schedule, I couldn't help but think that him saying that might not work as well.

Dr. Neel also pointed something out to me that I never knew. He said that, for example, a breast tumor that is 1 cm in diameter is one billion cells. So if the growth is slow and they start from a single cell, the tumor can be growing for 10 years before it is even noticed. I don't know if this information is practical for me in any way considering I worry about everything (I may have said in the middle of our lunch, "So I could have it right now"), but I just never had known that before.

I left this lunch thinking how admirable it is that there are people in the world that dedicate their entire lives to discovering a cure for something like cancer that causes so much pain in so many lives. It was really nice meeting Dr. Neel and learning a bit about the research being done at Princess Margaret. I hope that one day Dr. Neel's job is obsolete but in the meantime, I am glad we have people like him and his colleagues in the labs trying to get us there.