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At UHN, there are more than 700 lab professionals processing over 28 million tests every year.
"Behind every test is a patient who is waiting for your decision and that decision can be critical to that patient's journey," says Dr. George Yousef, the newly-appointed Program Medical Director of the Laboratory Medicine Program (LMP) at UHN.
"Lab medicine is the foundation of medicine. Eighty per cent of all clinical judgements are based on the labs – it's us who guides the treatment decision."
National Medical Laboratory Week runs from April 10 to 16, and is an opportunity to not only recognize lab professionals for the essential work that they do, but also to educate the public about the profession.
More than just testing COVID-19 swabs
"In light of the pandemic, lab medicine has been extra popular and maybe a little bit more understood," says Christine Bruce, Senior Director, LMP. "But, certainly lab medicine is way more than just testing COVID-19 swabs."
UHN is home to Canada's largest diagnostic laboratory medicine program, with teams in specimen management, biochemistry, hematology, coagulation, transfusion medicine, microbiology, pathology, genetics, and histocompatibility. These professionals are instrumental in enabling fast and accurate diagnoses, treatment, and long-term monitoring of patients in all of our clinical areas. They perform everything from routine blood tests, to life-saving transfusions, genetic testing, and cancer screening and the scope of their work continues to grow.
"Lab medicine is in this critical phase of evolution," says Dr. Yousef. "The lab isn't just providing a diagnostic test – we're evolving to provide very essential information on how to predict disease risk, how to diagnose disease accurately and assess its severity, and how to classify patients according to their unique biology."
Dr. Yousef a natural fit for Program Medical Director
The progressive and ambitious nature of LMP is what attracted Dr. Yousef to UHN.
"Moving ahead with the digitization of pathology services is one big ambitious project I'm excited about," he says. "We are also looking at enhancing our genetic testing in cancer and genetic disorders so we can be top of the game when it comes to genetic testing and new prophylactic medicine – trying to predict diseases and push them forward."
For Christine, Dr. Yousef was a natural fit for the role of Program Medical Director.
"When I first met George, I noticed that he has this really great enthusiasm for the art of the possible," said Christine. "We wanted to see that appetite for embracing new technology and George came to us with that view."
Artificial intelligence and digital pathology: the future of LMP
Together, Christine and Dr. Yousef will continue to lead LMP into new and innovative spaces. He says he's very motivated by Christine's energy, vision and organizational skills. Both leaders are excited about the merge between pathology, lab medicine and artificial intelligence (AI).
"How can this take us further to a new horizon, moving more into the centre of patient care by providing our patients with more information to guide their treatment," says Dr. Yousef.
Christine says that AI is the way of the future and naturally aligns with the department's move to digital pathology.
"The next logical thing is using AI to look at those slides – it just has to be done in a safe way that is very well trialed and explored," she says. "It will also help offset any types of professional labour shortages that we have because the pool of pathologists, scientists and lab technologists is not extremely deep."
The next phase of 'precision medicine'
Dr. Yousef has been driving innovations in the field of lab medicine for more than 30 years. Prior to arriving at UHN, he spent 11 years at St. Michael's Hospital as a pathologist and then went on to be the Chief of Pediatric Lab Medicine at SickKids.
But, he is most proud of his time spent completing his PhD at Sinai Health under the leadership of Dr. Eleftherios Diamandis, former Division Head of Clinical Biochemistry and current part-time medical biochemist at LMP.
"It was an exciting time for me as the human genome project was just evolving," he says.
"I was able to discover seven new cancer-related genes from the Kallikrein gene family, which can be used as cancer biomarkers and targeted for cancer therapy. I also established the first detailed analysis of this family and discovered that there are actually 15 Kallikrein genes."
This discovery opened a new world of possibilities in cancer diagnostics and treatments.
Dr. Yousef has also focused much of his research and time on the evolution of personalized or precision medicine – an approach that uses information about a person's genes, proteins, and environment to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.
"At UHN, we have a chance to take lab medicine into the next phase of precision medicine," he says. "I have a dream that one day we will have all genome sequences deciphered so that we can understand these diseases and how to prevent them. If someone is suffering from an illness we could tailor the treatment plan for their unique biology – a custom made plan for everyone."
Christine and Dr. Yousef will continue to work together to make their futuristic dreams and goals for the department a reality.
"Between George, myself and Catherine Wang (Vice President, Clinical), I feel there's a really good combination of clinical steadying and innovative exploring," says Christine. "And, somewhere in the middle is going to be this really nice path forward, to making this program world class – the industry will look to us."