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Dr. Sara Israels

Dr. Sara Israels

Q&A with Sara Israels

March 15, 2016 — 

On March 14 the University of Manitoba received two gifts of $1 million each to create the Lyonel G. Israels Professorship, a unique professorship in Hematology.

Dr. Israels [MD/49; MSc/50; DSc(Honoris Causa)/99] was a renowned and beloved physician, researcher and mentor throughout his career at the University of Manitoba (read more about him here). The $2-million Professorship in his honour was made possible by generous donations from the pharmaceutical company Bayer, and his family.

UM Today met with his daughter, Dr. Sara Israels, who is a pediatric hematologist and a professor in the department of pediatrics and child health, to hear her thoughts on the Professorship, and to learn about the textbook that made it all happen.


UM Today: How does it feel to see your father honoured in this way for his contributions?

Dr. Sara Israels: Entirely appropriate, actually. This is not the first time that he has been honoured by the University of Manitoba for his contributions to building a clinical and academic Hematology/Oncology program. But this professorship provides a wonderful legacy. Once established, I hope that there will always be a hematologist holding this position, and that Lyonel will continue to be remembered.

What are some of the great things happening in Hematology research right now?

Hematology is an extremely broad field because blood interacts with all other body organ systems. Blood cells are made in the bone marrow but once they leave the bone marrow they circulate through the body and are responsible for such diverse activities as carrying oxygen, fighting infection and preventing bleeding. There is research going on now at the University of Manitoba focused on important topics in Hematology such as leukemia, bone marrow transplantation, blood transfusion, and bleeding disorders.

One important example is the translational research program investigating both the basis for, and new treatment approaches to, a particular kind of leukemia called chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. I want to mention this because CLL was one of Lyonel’s particular interests – he was interested in therapy for CLL for most of his career. This research program is an endeavor jointly supported by the University of Manitoba and CancerCare Manitoba, and involves a large interdisciplinary team of basic scientists, medical doctors, students, and allied health professionals.

Will this Professorship help thrust this forward?

I think it will. I am most interested in this Professorship supporting the research career of an emerging hematology researcher. I envision it being awarded to someone who has demonstrated early success in his or her research career and is ready to lead new or larger research projects. The availability of the Professorship, with its additional research support, will enhance their opportunities for success. The Professorship also supports the University’s teaching mission; this individual will be a mentor to our present and future trainees in the field of Hematology.

Did your father share any good wisdom with you that you now find yourself sharing with other generations?

He told me that I should always aim high. He grew up in rural Saskatchewan during the Depression. It was not obvious from his background that he would become a doctor or that he would make lasting contributions to medicine and scholarship. I think his point was that we should not sell ourselves short. We all have the ability to do more; if we are enthusiastic, committed and willing to work hard we can accomplish important things, even things people did not expect of us. I think that was very important advice for me. I know it was also important advice for his other students, many of whom went on to be successful researchers and teachers here, and at other universities in Canada and the United States. I give the same advice to my students.

Do you want to say anything to Bayer?

Yes. Bayer initiated the endowment for this Professorship and I would like to tell you why that happened.

Dr. Sara Israels

Dr. Sara Israels with the textbook that made it all happen.

When Lyonel stepped down from the position of Executive Director of the Manitoba Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation (now CancerCare Manitoba) in 1993—after more than 20 years – he certainly was not ready to retire. He was interested in focusing on education for trainees in Hematology. He decided that what was lacking was teaching material that would help these students to understand the basic mechanisms of hematologic disease and to integrate that understanding with what they were seeing in the clinic. So, he and my mother Esther, who is also a physician and hematologist, started to write a book that they called Mechanisms in Hematology.

They had a small amount of funding and help from a few local colleagues, but they did 98% of the work. My father was the primary author; my mother also authored some of the chapters but took on the major role as editor. They had a small number of copies printed for their students in Winnipeg. I took one of the copies with me to a meeting in Toronto to show my colleagues from across the country. At one of the coffee breaks, I was walking around with the book under my arm, and Rena Battistella, who worked for Bayer said, “What’s the book?” So I showed her the book. Rena was immediately interested and saw its potential for teaching hematologists outside of Manitoba. She contacted Lyonel and then came to Winnipeg to meet Lyonel and Esther. She then convinced her colleagues at Bayer to support the production and distribution of the book.

Lyonel and Esther were very pleased, so they wrote a second edition. They found a publisher in Toronto, but Lyonel and Esther continued to do the majority of the work. The second edition had a companion CD with interactive graphics. The third edition, which was completed in 2002, had more sophisticated graphics and new expanded chapters. The book became available more widely in North America and was used for teaching in many programs. When I went to Hematology conferences, people would see my nametag and ask, “Did you write Mechanisms in Hematology!?” and I’d say, “No that was my parents.”

Bayer was committed to this project and supported the creation and distribution of all three editions. But what happened in the meantime is that Rena in particular, but others from Bayer as well, became good friends with Esther and Lyonel. It became a personal friendship and a successful partnership that promoted education in Hematology.

After Lyonel died, Bayer offered to support a lectureship in his honour. Starting in 2004, Bayer has provided an educational grant to CancerCare Manitoba allowing us to invite outstanding guest speakers to address important topics in clinical or translational hematologic research. The lecture is held in May and is one of the highlights of the year at CancerCare Manitoba.

Three years ago, when Rena and her colleagues came for the annual lecture, they said, ‘We came to tell you that we want to sponsor an endowed professorship in Hematology in Winnipeg.’ Most companies that sponsor a professorship or chair want it named for their company, but Bayer wanted it to be named in honour of Lyonel.

What went through your mind when you heard that?

I was overwhelmed. It speaks to the relationship that Lyonel had with Rena Battistella and with Bayer. They appreciated the significant impact of the work that Lyonel had done and that they had supported. They chose to go the next step and create a permanent legacy.


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Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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