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June 6, 2023
Described as “science heaven,” the Meakins-Christie Laboratories were well ahead of their time.
When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.
Imagine living your life gasping, unable to take in a full, life-giving breath. This is the reality for millions of people around the world living with chronic respiratory diseases. Whether from air pollution, smoking, genetics, infections or in many cases from causes as yet unknown, respiratory diseases are incredibly prevalent worldwide. At the Meakins-Christie Laboratories of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), expert researchers are doing everything they can to improve lung health in Montreal and around the world.
“The Meakins-Christie Laboratories have always been a unique and free-spirited intellectual environment. Our researchers think outside the box to push the boundaries of what’s possible and to advance respiratory medicine,” says Dr. Basil Petrof, Director of the Meakins-Christie Laboratories.
Opened in 1972, the Meakins-Christie Laboratories are celebrating 50 years of research excellence. This Montreal institution is known for ground-breaking discoveries related to the effects of smoking—and more recently cannabis and vaping—on the lungs, asthma, breathing muscle diseases, the impact of some jobs on respiratory health, lung infections, vaccinations for tuberculosis and more.
“We are incredibly proud to celebrate 50 years of achievement. The longevity of our research program is a testament to its winning formula,” says Dr. Petrof.
The Meakins-Christie Laboratories were established under the helm of Dr. Peter Macklem (1931-2011), a world-renowned leader in respiratory medicine who received the Order of Canada. The newly established Meakins-Christie Laboratories were a hub of cross-collaboration. The building featured a central lunchroom that encouraged staff to mingle, and blackboards were hung everywhere to facilitate discussions and the jotting down of new ideas. Weekly seminars were always conducted with beer on hand to, as Dr. Macklem put it, “embolden shy research trainees to comment and ask questions.”
“The idea of change and innovation was not only welcomed, it was fostered. Almost daily, furious arguments (but never quarrels) would break out, out of which spectacularly stupid and, more than occasionally, spectacularly brilliant ideas would emerge,” wrote Dr. Macklem in a history of the Meakins-Christie Laboratories.
Described as “science heaven,” the Meakins-Christie Laboratories were well ahead of their time not only in their start-up-like work environment, but their approach to research. Though it seems like an obvious choice, it was not always commonplace to conduct research with patients in mind. The Meakins-Christie Laboratories pioneered “translational” research, which focuses on “translating” basic science discoveries into innovative new treatments for patients.
“The research questions addressed at Meakins-Christie have always been guided by the needs of our patients and conversely, the answers to those research questions have been directly relevant to shaping how our patients are treated,” says Dr. Kevin Schwartzman, Director of the Division of Respiratory Medicine at the MUHC.
The laboratories are named for two distinguished physicians from the MUHC’s history. Dr. Jonathan Campbell Meakins and his protégé Dr. Ronald Christie both served as Physician-in-Chief of the Royal Victoria Hospital and Dean of the McGill Faculty of Medicine about 30 years apart. Together, they published a series of academic papers considered seminal to respiratory medicine, setting the stage for the tradition of excellence in this area.
Over the past five decades, the Meakins-Christie Laboratories have recruited and trained dozens of brilliant respiratory researchers from around the globe. Among the early faculty members who were key to the establishment of the Meakins-Christie Laboratories was Dr. Margaret Becklake (1922–2018). A renowned respirologist and epidemiologist originally from South Africa, Dr. Becklake was the founder of the Respiratory Epidemiology and Clinical Research Unit, which helped uncover the dangers of asbestos years ago and works in close cooperation with the Meakins-Christie Laboratories to this day.
Dr. Becklake was known for her mentorship of young researchers and physicians, particularly from underrepresented communities.
“She was a pioneer not only in respiratory medicine and epidemiology, but also in advancing the careers of women in science. When she came to Canada in the 1950s, few women worked, let alone in medicine or a leading a scientific laboratory. Dr. Becklake was a trailblazer in her research, broke boundaries and paved the way for woman researchers,” says Dr. Petrof.
Her legacy lives on today in the Dr. Margaret Becklake Fellowship for Respiratory Research, which provides critical funding for promising respiratory researchers from low- and middle-income countries, and Indigenous communities. Funded by donations to the MUHC Foundation, this prestigious award helps to ensure that advances in respiratory care reach the parts of the world and communities that need them most.
Today, the Meakins-Christie Laboratories continue their half-century tradition of excellence with ground-breaking research and a push toward personalized health care. Its talented researchers are pioneering new treatments that sound like something out of a science fiction novel: using 3D printing and inhalable particles to regenerate damaged lung tissue; harnessing the microbiome—the tiny microbes that live on and inside us—to improve respiratory health; and using artificial intelligence to improve care for respiratory diseases. All of these innovations are on the horizon, and Montrealers can be proud that this amazing, breath-giving work is happening right here in our city.
You can help make the Meakins-Christie Laboratories’ dreams for better health care come true. The MUHC Foundation is proud to support respiratory research and care at the MUHC through its $10 million Dream Big. Breathe Easier fundraising campaign.
To learn more and to donate, visit https://muhcfoundation.com/works/breathe-easier