You go through lot of phases in life. Right now, I’m well past my best-before date.
Dr. Kevin Burns
Division of Nephrology
Dr. Kevin Burns is one of Canada’s most influential kidney researchers, but not just for his impressive grant and publication stats and the impact his research has had on care but for the passion and commitment he invested to establish and develop KRESCENT, a national training program designed to attract and sustain kidney researchers in Canada. Kevin shares what he learned from a life dedicated to medicine including the unexpected tragic death of a sibling, a life altering pep talk from a supportive father and a recent and surprising medical diagnosis.
MY PRINCIPLE FAULT is a lack of patience. Recently one of my lab people ordered reagent and it didn’t come in so the experiment didn’t get done. At the lab meeting they said “oh, don’t worry it’s coming in next week”, and I said, “next week? That’s way too long! Pick up the phone and tell them you need it yesterday”. I have very little patience for accepting the norm, just figure out a way to get it done. To the point that sometimes people around me will say “wow, that guy doesn’t understand, he really needs to relax.”
IN HIGH SCHOOL, I was very good at mathematics and terrible at dating girls. I was terrified to talk to anyone from the opposite sex– absolutely terrified! It was only in university that I even started speaking to girls.
WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN OR SEVENTEEN I wanted to be a biologist or an artist. I used to like drawing and painting and had a bit of talent. Teachers in high school encouraged me to pursue art but my father would say “you know it’s pretty tough out there to be an artist so maybe you should stick with science, you’re good at it”. And there was no question that I was good cat it. I loved analytical stuff anyway so I kind of gave the art up. I bought some paints a few years ago and painted a few things but then stopped – just for lack of time. Maybe one day…
I KNOW IT SOUNDS CORNY, but my wife Francine is my best friend.
MY GREATEST REGRET is not having 10 kids. I have three sons: two stepsons and my son William, who’s now 16. I was an older Dad and loved the experience of having a young baby and all the stuff you needed to do in those early years. And then as he got older I enjoyed bringing him to the arena for hockey and an opportunity to socialize with other people — it really broadened my horizons. Before fatherhood, I had the blinders on by research and medicine. Up until that point I was a self-centered narcissist. Then you have a child and suddenly the world is not yours anymore, it’s somebody else’s. Being completely responsible for somebody else is very healthy, so… the more kids the better.
I KNEW I WAS GOING TO BECOME a physician when I opened the acceptance letter from med. school. All bets were off until then. And actually, I almost dropped out my third year. Even though I was really book smart, as soon as we got into the hospital setting and convert knowledge to practice — I couldn’t handle it. I could analyze things; I just couldn’t deal with all the pressures of the hospital environment. So, I came home one evening and called my dad and said, “listen, I don’t think this is for me, I’m just finding it too hard. I think I should go into engineering. Tomorrow I’m going to dropout”. I was living in downtown Montreal at the time, going to McGill and he was living in Laval, which is about a 45-minute drive, and the next thing you know he’s knocking on my door. I remember it like it was yesterday — he was very kind and supportive and said “let me help you, what is it that you’re having trouble with? Let’s go through your patients”. He had no knowledge of medicine but could put things in perspective. He helped me get organized and figure out some simple things that I could do to get through the day. He told me “you can do this”. That talk prevented me from making a knee-jerk decision that would have been big mistake.
I’M INCAPABLE OF sitting still. I was always fidgety and had little ticks as a child. People in my family would point out that I kept touching my chair a lot…my nose, things that I didn’t notice. I’ve had those all my life. My leg jumps when I’m sitting so I don’t like sitting for a long time. Francine especially doesn’t like it. When we’re out she’s always telling me to stop moving.
I HAVE A RULE IN LIFE: Promise nothing, deliver everything.
MY STRESS reducing trick is running/exercise.
I GREW UP in Chomedey, Laval. My father was an electronics salesman. My mother was a secretary and taught me to be myself and be satisfied with that. I was raised to be independent due to the dynamics in my family. I was the second child. A lot of attention was devoted to my older brother even though he was very outgoing. He had some issues we could see early in life, started having depressions as a teenager and was diagnosed as bipolar. So, a lot of the energy in the house surrounded him. I took care of myself so my parents never had to worry about me.
I WAS VERY CLOSE to my brother, he was quite successful, very, very smart and funny. He was also studying to be a doctor. Sadly, with only three months left before completing med school, he committed suicide. Up until that time in my life I had never been exposed to personal tragedy. It obviously had a huge impact on me as it would on anybody in any family. It took me a good decade to really recover and get my life in order. I went through some bad years and had to get therapy. It was devastating. On a positive note, I have much more empathy now for people with mental illness. Too often I’ve seen situations where others don’t have that kind of empathy. I’m totally healed. Our family can, and still talk about it, and it’s something I carry every day —you never forget, it’s always there.
I THINK PEOPLE SEE ME as aloof or intimidating. People have told me that actually. So, when you hear it enough you think, ‘well, it’s probably true’. Perhaps it’s because I’m quiet and have a serious demeanour and I can sometimes speak forcefully about things in meetings or even one on one. But I’m disappointed to hear that, so that’s why I’m softening with time. Intimidation to me means that someone is fearful of responding or saying something because of the way you are. And that’s not something I would encourage at all.
AT NIH IN BETHESDA, MARYLAND there was scientist by the name of Mo Burg who discovered how-to perfuse kidney tubules —he was a giant in the field and the nicest man I ever met. I spent a day with him and was so impressed that I knew I wanted to work with him. But I was also scheduled to visit the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and it was also great. So, I went to one of my mentors for advice and he says to me, “you know, Dr. Burg is getting a little bit up in years. What if you get down there and he suddenly says he’s retiring and then you’ll be stuck with nobody?” So, I went to Nashville. And then every single annual meeting of the American Society of Nephrology I went to I would see Dr. Burg — no kidding. Even now! He obviously didn’t retire then and he must be in his late 80s now. And believe it or not he’s still doing research.
I SPENT MOST OF MY CAREER studying the renin angiotensin system in the kidney. But most recent work I’m doing is a complete 180 from that. I’ve always been interested in acute kidney injury, where patients suddenly lose kidney function for a variety of reasons such as infections, post operatively, blood loss — the kidneys just shut down. Up to 50% of patients in the ICU have this in various grades but if you have the severe form of what we call acute kidney injury or AKI, there’s a very high mortality rate — about 50%. There are absolutely no treatments despite 50 years of research; either to prevent it or to enhance the recovery of kidneys which have the capacity to regenerate once they’ve been injured.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, there was literature starting to come out which asked the question ‘do stem cells help kidneys regenerate?’ So, I linked up with David Allen in Hematology who was isolating core blood and core blood cells at the time and we began to collaborate, along with Dylan Burger at the Kidney Research Centre. Fast forward past some initial failures to today and our current success. My lab is discovering the therapeutic properties of small extracellular vesicles (exosomes) derived from human cord blood endothelial colony-forming cells. To date, we’ve already shown that injecting specific microRNA, (miR-486-5p) isolated from these exosomes into the mice can repair the kidneys. Now I’m working with a PhD scientist at uOttawa who’s interested in nanomedicine to create particles called nanoparticles that we think might be used to package this microRNA to deliver and target the kidneys in larger animals — that’s the next step.
I’M VERY HOPEFUL, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in my career in research. Every time I go into the lab I’m blown away by what we’re finding. Usually with research it’s very incremental and iterative but our data has been off the charts right from the beginning. I’ve always been very skeptical; you learn to be as a scientist. Always thinking that this can’t be true, let’s do it again. But this time I’m very excited. But, because I’m getting in the late stages of my career I know that we’ve got to move this quick. I’m hopeful that my recent 5-year grant and the research it supports will someday lead directly to novel treatment strategies for AKI in humans.
YOU DON’T KNOW what people are really like until you have a few beers with them.
SLEEP is life’s greatest luxury. Last Saturday, I slept in until about 9:00 a.m., then fixed my ride-on mower. I watched a YouTube video to guide me through the repair otherwise there’s no way I would have known what to do. Francine can tell you stories about me screwing up small renovation projects. I love that stuff but I’m terrible at it and I’m in awe of people who come by it naturally.
I DO MY BEST THINKING in the early morning, alone when I’m in my office with no calls or emails. I get up around 5:30 a.m. and get to work early. It’s probably the best time of day for me to think and when I tend to write.
MY MOST MARKED CHARACTERISTIC besides shyness is a good sense of humour. Humour for me is one of the things I love most about living. Comedy, humour and having a sense of humour will get you through anything. That’s my raison d’être. Francine says I tend to be funny when I’m in front of an audience, that it comes kind of naturally even though I dislike public speaking. I think it’s a good ice breaker for me.
FEAR is when your 16-year-old son starts driving.
WORDS I SHOULD USE MORE OFTEN are ’thank you’. It’s something I sometimes neglect to say to acknowledge people who have done good or nice things. I’ve got to be more appreciative of what people do. It’s a weakness. It’s a problem. I’m working on it.
I AM MOTIVATED by stories of great leaders. To compete in life, you’ve got to believe in your abilities and then to become good at anything you should practice, practice, practice. When I really want something, I am relentless.
FLORENCE OR BARCELONA are my favourite cities because I love the ambience, art and romance.
I ALWAYS WANTED an electric guitar. If after I died I could choose to come back as something, it would be a rock star because I love rock music, in fact I’m trying to learn how to play guitar. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve been going to rock concerts and it always seemed to be the dream life — the music and the performance. Not the drugs.
WATCHING HOCKEY is the perfect outlet for me. I’m a Sens super-fan. But my favourite activity outside of the hospital is playing golf. The afternoon of my dreams would include a golf game, then a cruise on the Gatineau river.
MY GREATEST PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENT is establishing a national kidney research training program (KRESCENT) designed to attract people into this field. It was a tremendous amount of work but I enjoyed it because I had this idea that it was going to be good for the future of Nephrology in Canada. Almost 70 trainees have graduated, many of whom are top notch researchers. It’s become a model for other research training programs in Canada.
IT HAS BEEN extremely gratifying and humbling to see all those young people succeed.
WHY DID I STEP DOWN from KRESCENT? Last summer I was diagnosed with an illness; I have Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). It was out of the blue and showed up with blood work. So, after speaking with Francine I knew I had to make some changes in my life and gave up several administrative roles. I’m not shy to talk about it but I don’t want sympathy. Other people have much more serious issues that they’re dealing with. But even before I found out about CLL I was thinking that it was time to transition out, I’ve been doing this for fourteen years, somebody else should be doing it now. I’m really concentrating on my lab, that’s my main focus right now.
BEST MOVIE LINE of all time is “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” I like all the Godfather movies and Goodfellas because they’re kind of seedy and dark and tough — things I like. I’d like to be like some of those people in someway…well, maybe not quite.
IF I HAD TO WRITE my autobiography using less than six words it would be ’His friends called him Heavy Kevy’. It was a nickname I had in high school because I was always pensive. Heavy meaning ’lighten up’! I was always worrying about something, like an exam that was coming up.
WHO KNOWS WHAT’S NEXT. I’m just trying to live every day and I hope to continue working for five more years— that will bring me to age 65. And that’s the length of my research grant. I want to concentrate on that and see it to completion.