The first CLF Summer Studentship is awarded to future world-renowned liver specialist, Gary Levy

Investing in the future of liver researchers

If one individual is living proof of the Canadian Liver Foundation’s (CLF) ability to invest in inspiring young medical students, it is surely Dr. Gary Levy, former director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at the University Health Network (UHN).

Having already expressed a keen interest in establishing a research career in the medical field, Dr. Levy might have thought at the time that this was the only spark he needed to pursue a career as a clinician-scientist.

That was until he met the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) co-founder Dr. M. M. “Woody” Fisher, an early driving force for liver research in Canada, at a high school seminar in the late-60s’.

Dr. Levy was captivated by information on the liver’s role in the body and diseases like viral hepatitis. It became clear to him that he needed to be a part of Dr. Fisher’s ‘small group’ (eventually becoming the CLF) trying to understand how the liver functioned and what caused liver disease.

He soon received the first CLF Summer Studentship Research Grant in 1971 and began his role on Dr. Fisher’s team helping discover the cause of cholestatic liver disease (a condition where the liver cannot produce enough bile).

“This was a remarkable time for me personally,” says Dr. Levy, “The ability to work alongside senior leaders was unlike anything else at the time, and that early, hands-on exposure was a major force for me pursuing the next 35 years of liver research.”

Dr. Levy’s interest in liver disease, nurtured by the CLF’s Summer Studentship grant, would follow him through medical school and eventually, into a fellowship in Gastroenterology.

Photo Credit: Nathan Denette | The Canadian Press

Following a post-doctoral fellowship at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in California, Dr. Levy returned to Toronto and founded the Liver Transplant Unit at Toronto General Hospital in 1987. In 1990, he established the first Multi-Organ Transplant Program in Canada, combining the expertise and resources from transplant programs in kidney, heart, liver and lung.

From less than 100 transplant surgeries a year in its first few years, to becoming North America’s leader of adult transplants with 639 conducted in 2017, this program incorporates skills Dr. Levy learned to hone during his early days with the CLF like the power of collaboration and translatable knowledge.

Throughout his 35 year career, Dr. Levy has remained connected to the CLF and firmly believes that some of the Foundation’s greatest successes are how it builds and invests in people.

“The CLF has been fantastic in bringing people together and providing an avenue for national meetings that provide ongoing education for the medical community, advocating and lobbying for liver disease patients, and getting the message of risk and prevention out to the public,” says Dr. Levy “These are all critical and multipronged approaches to fighting liver disease.”

There is still much unknown about liver disease, and it is clear that the need for liver specialists and researchers in Canada is just as big as today as it was 50 years ago.  Dr. Levy agrees that the key to unlocking these answers is to continue sparking the minds of junior and seasoned scientists by funding research grants at all levels.

“I feel very lucky that I had the encouragement and support of the CLF to help keep me on track,” says Dr. Levy. “I’ve come full circle, first watching the older generation,  getting to a place where I could embrace and apply new technology, and eventually becoming a mentor myself”.

“Many of the current specialists I know couldn’t do what they do today without the encouragement and support of the CLF.”

Dr. Gary Levy continues to be a liver health juggernaut in Canada and has received many awards including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (nominated by the CLF),  appointed to the  Order of Ontario and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the University of Toronto, the International Liver Transplant Society and the Canadian Society of Transplantation.

Read more about CLF-funded research grants.