M. Hayden, Canada's 'researcher of year'

 Donated $500,000 prize to charity

Article by André Picard

Toronto Globe and Mail


December 22, 2008

When Michael Hayden was named Canada’s "researcher of the year" by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research last month, it was hardly a surprise.

He is, after all, one of the world’s most renowned geneticists, having identified the genes responsible for a number of disorders – including Huntington disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig disease), type 2 diabetes, and pain — and the founder of three successful biotechnology companies.

But it is what Dr. Hayden, director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia, did with the $500,000 prize money that surprised and inspired his colleagues: He donated the entirety to a charity that will train aspiring doctors and researchers, particularly those from Africa.

"At first, I wasn’t aware money came with the prize," Dr. Hayden said in an interview. "But when I found out there was half a million dollars, I decided that I have to be a curator, I have to use this to honour the opportunities that have been given to me and help provide opportunities to others."

Using the prize as seed money (and having raised almost $3-million more in the past six weeks), he has created a foundation called Ripples of Hope.

The foundation will bring trainees to Canada to study in four areas: global health (HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis in particular), mental health, rare diseases, and biotechnology and entrepreneurship.

"Each of these awards reflects an aspect of my past and encompasses the future," Dr. Hayden said.

Dr. Hayden was born and raised in Apartheid-era South Africa. His parents were divorced and he lived, in modest circumstances, with his mother, though his father paid for his private school education. "I was the only kid in my school whose family didn’t have servants, or a car," he said.

On a cool winter’s morning, June 06, 1966, he skipped school, jumped on his mother’s Vespa scooter and headed to the University of Cape Town. The then-15-year-old waded into the crowd and listened to a speech by Senator Robert Kennedy, in which he said:

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

The words, Dr. Hayden said, remained with him his whole life and served as an inspiration for the Ripples of Hope Foundation.

After graduating at the top of class in medical school at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Hayden began working as a clinician. His mentor ran a health clinic for "coloreds" — the term used to describe those of mixed race in the Apartheid era — and one of his patients had Huntington, a devastating neurological disorder that causes a mixture of physical, developmental and mental health problems. At the time, it was believed that Huntington was unique to Europeans but Dr. Hayden, undertook a research project in which he scoured psychiatric institutions in South Africa and discovered numerous Huntington patients. It would be the beginning of a life-long quest to unravel the mysteries of the disease.

His work attracted the attention of Marjorie Mazia, the wife of folk singing legend Woody Guthrie (who died of Huntington in 1967) and led to a research job at Harvard University.

But in February 1983, Dr. Hayden visited UBC, which was aggressively courting young faculty. The visit was marked by five glorious days of sunshine (only later would he learn that it actually rains in Vancouver) that were reminiscent of his native South Africa.

But even more impressive, he said, was the "glorious welcome" he received from researchers at the university, as well as patients with Huntington and their family members.

"There was this spirit of camaraderie and openness that was remarkable," Dr. Hayden said. He was sold immediately on UBC and has been there for 25 years, despite lucrative job offers from around the world.

Dr. Alain Beaudet, president of the CIHR, the principal funder of health research, said Canada is blessed to have a researcher of Dr. Hayden’s stature.

"He has a seemingly endless capacity for innovative thinking," Dr. Beaudet said. "He is an inspiration to every health research who dreams of improving lives."

The research of the year prize goes to a scientist who has shown "outstanding commitment, innovation, creativity, achievement and leadership in health research."

In addition to his scientific discoveries, he said one of Dr. Hayden’s notable achievements is his reaching out to younger researchers. He has trained close to 100 researchers from 30 countries and that pace will accelerate with the new foundation. He is also known for his philanthropic work, including the construction of a community centre for children and youth with HIV-AIDS in Cape Town.

Dr. Hayden said: "I have been blessed as an immigrant to be able to live and work in this great country, and I want to give back."

He said the nurturing environment and spirit of collaboration that drew him to Canada is one of the country’s greatest assets and has allowed a small country to become a world leader in science.

"In Canada, we find ways to share and to do things together that we could never do alone. It’s a different way of doing science," Dr. Hayden said.

He points, for example to the Canadian Genetic Disease Network, a cross-country collaborative effort that was able to "discover more genes than any other organization in the history of the world."

Dr. Hayden said he sees this kind of success time and time again in Canadian science, and it never ceases to inspire him.

"Our colleagues around the world are amazed that this is possible. Elsewhere, people cannot subsume their individual goals for the greater good, but it happens routinely in Canada."

It is in that spirit, Dr. Hayden said, that he created the new foundation and the awards for trainees, the first of which will be handed out in early 2009.

"Every day in Canadian science is a lesson in nation-building," he said. "It’s a lesson we need to share with the world."