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Dec 2013
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Hans Messner

Dr Hans. Messner thanks friends, family and colleagues at Thursday's symposium tribute

A giant (in a roomful of stem cell giants) says goodbye

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Maybe you’ve never heard of Hans Messner.

He has never scored a Stanley Cup playoff goal. Never starred in a movie or a television show. He has neither held public office, nor called a press conference to apologize for bad behaviour.

He is, however, directly and indirectly responsible for rescuing thousands of people from leukemia and other blood-borne cancers.

Dr. Messner, who is retiring this month after a 44-year career at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, was a member of Canada’s first stem cell bone marrow transplantation team. For the past several decades, he led the Princess Margaret program that has performed more than 2,200 allogeneic (donor) transplants. The institution he served so well as both a caring doctor (former non-Hodgkin lymphoma patient Chris Taylor calls him “the epitome of hope”) and an internationally respected researcher (almost 200 publications listed on PubMed) honoured him Thursday with a symposium and reception.

More than 100 people — friends, family, colleagues and many young scientists he has inspired — braved bone-chilling weather to crowd into the MaRS Auditorium for the event.

Among them were some of the giants of stem cell research and bone marrow transplantation, then and now. Dr. James Till, who, with his research partner, the late Dr. Ernest McCulloch, first proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s, chaired the proceedings. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre’s Dr. Rainer Storb, who worked shoulder to shoulder with Nobel-winner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas in developing bone marrow transplantation, flew in from Seattle. Many originals from the days when Till & McCulloch ruled the Princess Margaret’s former Sherbourne Street research labs (the University of Toronto’s Dr. Norman Iscove and the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Connie Eaves) were there to compare current findings to early work in the field.  Others (Dr. Rick Miller, who devised some of the earliest cell-sorting tools to avoid graft-versus-host disease, and Dr. Allen Eaves, who took what he learned in Toronto and set up the transplantation program in Vancouver) attended simply to honour a man widely regarded as one of the hardest working and good-natured individuals ever to put on a white coat.  Two of Canada’s top cancer researchers — Drs. Tak Mak and John Dick — spent a rare afternoon away from their labs to pay tribute.

Dr. Messner, a German national, was recruited to the Princess Margaret by Dr. McCulloch after the two became acquainted at a conference in Freiburg in 1966.  After completing his MD, he did his PhD under Dr. McCulloch’s mentorship and by 1970 was a key part of the brand new transplant team.

While bone marrow transplantation is now standard care for leukemia, it was highly experimental at the time. In the 1960s, hundreds of attempts at transplantation by teams around the world  ended in failure. The Princess Margaret team scored its first success –a long-term survivor — with a 1972 transplant. The program, led by the persistent and persuasive Dr. Messner, has been extending, enhancing and saving lives ever since.

The store of knowledge that Dr. Messner built at Princess Margaret has been shared with clinicians and researchers across the country. As Dr. Lothar Heubsch explained at the symposium, the transplantation protocols Dr. Messner championed have been adopted and adapted to successfully treat multiple sclerosis patients at his Ottawa General Hospital and are now being used for other autoimmune disorders such as neuromyelitis optica, Stiff Person’s Syndrome and Crohn’s disease. That work is led by Dr. Harry Atkins, a true disciple of Dr. Messner.

“Hans exemplified a personal commitment to care,” Dr. Robert Bell, CEO & President of the University Health Network, told the audience. He described Dr. Messner as “a terrific doctor” and a “translational scientist who has had a huge impact on this country.”

On a personal note, Dr. Messner was an enormous help when I was writing the book Dreams & Due Diligence about Till & McCulloch’s stem cell discovery and legacy. A very busy man (does a life get any busier than treating cancer patients and conducting research?), Dr. Messner took the time to explain Canadian bone marrow transplantation history, drawing attention to one of the first procedures ever performed — in Regina in 1957. He did this even though we had never met and he had no idea who I was. Apparently, such acts of kindness are entirely typical.

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