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Helping Patients in the Lab and at the Bedside

February 2016
Brian Kavanagh, MB, FRCPC

Brian Kavanagh, MB,

Brian P. Kavanagh, MB, FRCPC, was born in Dublin, Ireland. While a young boy, he developed meningitis. Although a very challenging time in his life and his family’s—they weren’t sure he would survive—he recovered, and the experience inspired him to become a doctor.

Early on in school his grades were not great, but they improved and he attended medical school in Dublin. He graduated in 1985, trained in internal medicine in Dublin, completed a residency and fellowship in anesthesia in Toronto, and followed that up with a critical care medicine fellowship at Stanford University.

His first staff appointment was at Toronto General Hospital, in Critical Care Medicine and Anesthesia, and he was then recruited to the Hospital for Sick Children, where today he serves as a pediatric intensivist and clinician-scientist.

He is also chair of the Department of Anesthesia at the University of Toronto, and in this role, he oversees a university-wide department covering six fully affiliated hospitals and 275 individuals. His administrative focus includes attracting and supporting research-oriented trainees and the establishment of several endowed research chairs. Dr. Kavanagh also leads the organizing committee of Critical Care Canada, Canada’s largest critical care medicine meeting, which is held each year in Toronto.

He also spends time in the lab. There his team is dedicated to finding ways to improve mechanical ventilation and ultimately, to help patients.

“One thing we looked at was whether or not mechanical ventilation could activate genes within the lung, and then determine if these effects are helpful or harmful,” he explains. “One of the genes we identified increases the activation of an enzyme that could cause harm. In mice, we were able to administer a drug that could alleviate that harm. This example is not currently translatable to patients—but the concept is established.”

In another study the team demonstrated that soluble factors released into the circulation by adverse ventilation were not only markers of injury, but could cause or worsen lung injury. If identified, such factors could potentially be antagonized or removed from the circulation, and this could potentially help patients suffering from ARDS.

Laurent Brochard, MD, PhD, leads Critical Care Medicine across the University of Toronto system of hospitals, and has known Dr. Kavanagh for more than 20 years.

Brian is undoubtedly an outstanding researcher. He is innovative, unconventional, and challenges dogmas. But he is also a very politically efficient leader, in the best sense of the word,” says Brochard. “It is remarkable to see these two aspects at the same time. This is admirable and inspiring.”

Dr. Kavanagh says he specifically sought out medical and scientific training in different parts of the world; he believes it is invaluable to experience how specialty medicine is practiced in different cultures.

“When I was a student in the 1980s, the emphasis in Ireland and Britain was primarily on gaining experience. In North America it was on explicit understanding,” he explains. “I wanted to have these different perspectives.”

Providing clinical care and mentoring medical trainees has been the most rewarding aspect of his career. He has trained a generation of future scientists, and in the administrative realm he takes great satisfaction in being able to fundraise for and develop endowed research chairs.

Dr.  Kavanagh remains optimistic about the future of research.

“Although there are setbacks and blind alleys, in many cases, our level of understanding is better than it was 20 years ago, and 20 years before that,” he says.

Taylor Thompson, MD, is a clinical trialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has worked with Dr. Kavanagh for many years.

“Brian is one of the smartest among us and probably the quickest of wit,” says Dr. Thompson. “He asked me once why one of our clinical trials was negative. Not knowing for sure, I recounted the usual possibilities: wrong dose or duration, wrong timing, wrong subset of patients, etcetera. Brian’s response was, ‘Did you consider you asked the wrong question?’ On further reflection, Brian was probably right….”

Dr. Kavanagh has been closely involved with ATS, serving as a conference chair for critical care in 2008, and volunteering in numerous other capacities, including peer-review for the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

In describing the Society he says: Professional organizations are quite varied: some are fundamentally about continuing medical education, some are about advocacy for clinicians, and still others focus on advocating for patients. I see ATS as an organization that believes in the primacy of research to move the field forward. I have put a lot effort into the organization and have been repaid with many dividends—just one is meeting so many gifted and accomplished people. The key reason why I value the organization is because it is driven by research far more than typical organizations focused on critical care.”

Dr. Kavanagh is married to intensivist and researcher Hannah Wunsch, MD, also an ATS member, and associate editor of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. In his free time he plays Irish music, an interest that harks back to his childhood.

Last Reviewed: September 2017