The man hasn't been to the movies for years and he rarely takes a vacation. "Basically, I work around the clock," says Tak Mak, one of Canada's pre-eminent scientists and director of Toronto's Amgen Institute, where more than 40 researchers strive to push back the frontiers of medical knowledge. Mak's idea of fun is to answer the 100 or so e-mail messages that pour into his computer every day, digest stacks of scientific journals and talk endlessly with fellow scientists and anyone else who is interested about his favorite subject: science. While doing this, Mak oversees dozens of research projects. "I push myself hard," says the slight 50year-old. "I almost take on more than I can handle, and then push myself to get it done."
Over the past dozen years, Mak's brilliance as an immunologist has vaulted him into the top echelons of cancer research. He travels frequently to address learned gatherings: in a three-week period in June, Mak spoke at meetings in Sweden, France, Germany, the United States and Canada. In the same month, he became the first Canadian to win the coveted Sloan Prize, sharing the $136,000 award with Stanford University's Mark Davis for deciphering the mechanism that enables a key component in the immune system to identify viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. Since that 1984 breakthrough, Mak and Amgen have dazzled the scientific world with findings that shed new light on the immune system and on the building blocks of cancer. "The trick,"
says Mak, "is to learn how the body's machinery works, so that we can eventually fix it."
Born in southern China and raised in Hong Kong, Mak attributes his drive to events in his early life: his businessman father lost a fortune as a result of the 1949 Communist takeover. "Knowing that," Mak says, "gave me the drive to kind of recoup those losses, but in a different way. " The different way was science. When he was 15, Mak moved alone to Madison, Wis., where he entered the University of Wisconsin the next year. Attracted to the University of Alberta by scientific work being done there, Mak was just 24 when he emerged with a PhD in biochemistry in 1971.
Recruited upon graduation by the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, Mak began to build an international reputation that led to a crisis of sorts. After his
1984 discovery, he received dozens of job offers, and in 1986 almost took up a prestigious post at Yale. In the end,
he decided to stay in Canada. "It turned out to be the best decision I ever made, " he says. The reason: in 1993, Amgen Inc., a prosperous, Los
prosperous, Angeles-based drug company, offered to spend $133 million over 10 years to create an institute led by Mak within the OCI.
Home is one place where Mak tends not to talk shop: his wife, Shirley, a former librarian, is more concerned with family affairs. But daughters Julie, 23, and Shi-yen, 21, appear to share their father's dominant interest: both are studying science at university. In his work, Mak's focus increasingly is shifting from immunology to cancer. The need to find ways of eventually curing such dread diseases as breast cancer is so great, says Mak, "that you can't stop, you can't sleep—it's just too pressing."
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