Looking Back: A Retirement Interview with Dr. Vince Duronio

Throughout their diverse and storied careers, UBC Department of Medicine faculty members acquire a wealth of clinical, educational, and leadership knowledge and skills. We value the experience of our retiring faculty and seek to capture some of their valuable insight and wisdom to share with the UBC Department of Medicine community. We hope that our current faculty will find these perspectives useful as they consider their own career paths.

Dr. Vince Duronio (He/Him/His)

Professor Emeritus

Department of Medicine/Division of Respiratory Medicine

Langley, BC

Dr. Vince Duronio was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. He received his PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario and did a postdoctoral fellowship at Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories in North Carolina.

His early research involved signaling via cytokine receptors, expanding on the role of PI 3-kinase pathways, and discovering its essential role in cell survival. His lab went on to examine the role of BCL-2 family proteins in apoptosis and extended the scope of its research from cytokines involved in inflammation into the fields of cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory science, and tendon biology.

Dr. Duronio retired on December 31, 2021, from the Department of Medicine in the Division of Respiratory Medicine and is now enjoying life on the farm in Langley and building the family business (Durwell Equine Naturals)

What brought you to Vancouver, and what was your first job at UBC?

I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and did my undergraduate there. I did my PhD at Western University in Biochemistry. At one point in my life, I remember touching down at the airport in Vancouver on the way to Australia. A job at the Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) ultimately brought me to Vancouver for my first real visit. I was in North Carolina, and a friend of mine told me about a job advertised for the centre. I applied for the position and was invited to Vancouver by John Schrader, the founding Director of the BRC. They put me up at the Faculty Club overlooking the water on a beautiful summer weekend, and I thought, “Wow. This is a pretty sweet spot.” I was hired as a research associate, so that’s what brought me here.

What was the path from Research Associate to Professor Emeritus?

A position became available in the division of Respiratory Medicine partially based on funding from the BC Lung Association, to which I’ve always been grateful, and I subsequently moved through the ranks. For many years, these were ‘soft money’ positions, as many are in Medicine. The Medical Research Council of Canada and the BC Lung Association funded my first five years. Then I received one of the first Michael Smith Scientist positions. The department head (John Mancini) and division head (John Fleetham) worked to get me a tenure track position in the division of Respiratory Medicine. I became a full Professor in 2003.

Was there an influence in your formative education that put you on your path to Respiratory Medicine?

I wish I could say there was, but it was just circumstance. My passion has always been in receptors and signal transduction. When I was at the Biomedical Research Centre, I applied those skills to cytokine receptors and their signaling. Cytokines control the inflammatory response; many of these cytokines are very important in studying lung inflammation. This work segued into respiratory medicine, utilizing those pathways as a rationale not only for inflammation in general but also for inflammation in the lungs.

I’m so grateful for the division’s support, even though I branched off into many different directions. The direction of my research was always dependent on getting grant funding. I may have been the only person who had funding from the Medical Research Council, BC Lung Association, National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Cancer Research Society, and the Heart & Stroke Foundation (maybe all overlapping) because of my work with inflammation. Many of the signaling pathways you look at in cancer research are common to every pathway and are the basis by which all cells grow. The research could be applied widely, but it was always in a different context. At one point, I did a project with Kelly McNagny studying Multiple Sclerosis, so I ran the gamut of what we could do with projects. In the last few years of my career, I worked with Dr. Nasreen Khalil on Lung Fibrosis. So I ended up coming full circle.

Do you find it rewarding to have your life’s research be applicable to multiple fields as opposed to a relatively narrow field?

It’s rewarding in the sense that it’s always interesting. I’ve discussed this with a few people over the years – my career trajectory could have potentially had more impact on a particular narrow field had I stuck to only doing that. But I ran with my interests and the interests of the trainees. I’ve delved into several areas, maybe to the exclusion of a tight and focused body of work that you get recognized for internationally.

Tell me about your involvement with the Experimental Medicine program

There is a lot of history to the program. Dr. Simon Rabkin, a cardiologist, started the program in 1987. Subsequent directors were Dr. Gary Quamme (Nephrology) and then Dr. Norman Wong (Nephrology). I took over the program from Norman in 2004.

I was involved in the program fairly early, even before becoming an Assistant Professor. I was on the advisory committee and had several graduate students, so I was very aware of the program. It was almost as though Norman kept including me in all the activities because he said, “Well, you’re going to take this over one day.” I don’t even think there was a formal search process at that time. I think I was the longest-serving director of the program at about 15 years.

It’s always about the trainees. That is one of my favorite parts about running a lab/research group. It’s not all roses, but I probably met a thousand plus students that went through the Experimental Medicine program. The greatest satisfaction is being able to help students who feel like they’re in desperate situations and put them on the right track. It is a very rewarding experience.

I was recently chairing a PhD defense, and it was for a student that I’d helped out many years ago. I had worked hard to find the right place for them, and they ended up in Fabio Rossi’s lab, where they had done exceptionally well. At that defense discussion, Fabio said, “I just want to say, if Vince calls you up and says you should take a student, listen to him because he’s right.” That made me feel quite good.

What is your career highlight?

I define my career as a Research career. We were one of the first labs in the world to identify a specific kinase essential for keeping cells alive. Every cell has the inherent ability to commit suicide. A lot of our research focused on this pathway called apoptosis. It was among the first projects we did when I started my lab. I had the idea that this kinase pathway (PI 3-kinase) must be important to keep cells alive based on a whole bunch of experiments I’d already done. Sure enough, that turned out to be the case. That pathway is probably one of the biggest targets for therapeutics these days, particularly for cancer treatments. Whatever little contribution we made to characterize it initially, this discovery has far-reaching implications in medicine.

Who was your most important mentor?

It depends on the stage.

I had a fantastic high school chemistry teacher that would blow things up at the front of the class, and I thought that was really cool. He was a phenomenal teacher, and he set the spark.

I had some great professors during my undergraduate, but you always go back to your PhD supervisor. For better or worse, you replicate what they taught you, and I had a good experience in graduate school. My PhD supervisor and the department head at Western at that time – their labs worked together, and I was fortunate to be mentored by them both. Nowadays, we say that of the PhDs that graduate, only a small percentage end up in academia. When I think back to the group I was with in graduate school, of the 30-40 of us, I can think of at least 15 that went on to senior-level academic positions. We had a very illustrious graduating class.

What advice would you have for a junior faculty member just starting their research careers?

My perspective will be from an academic / discovery research lens. In that respect, I say you follow your nose. In running a research group, be careful and thorough in your recruiting. Try to do your homework on who you’re taking on, especially in those early days. If you have four people in your lab and one is disruptive, you could be looking at a tough situation. When you have the right group, it can be so much fun. Keep your group active and working together.

What advice might you have for a senior faculty member approaching retirement?

Don’t stay around too long, and ensure you have lots to do outside your job.

I will be honest; the COVID-19 pandemic influenced me to decide to retire when I did. We had been commuting between Vancouver and Langley to the farm. So, beginning to work from home made it easier to give up our footprint in Vancouver. I was not ready to reapply for grants and felt quite ready to retire.

What will you miss most about working at UBC?

I think what I’ll miss most are the discussions with trainees and colleagues. I really enjoyed student committees, examinations, and defenses. It keeps you thinking and active in what is going on in several fields.

I’ll miss the collegiality of UBC – where you get to talk science with your friends. It never felt like a job to me; it was just a privilege.

What is something we might be surprised to learn about you?

We have a horse farm in Langley. My daughter is a competitive rider, and we have several horses that she rides. We’ve recently purchased a number of young horses that are coming up as lovely potential jumpers. We renovated a property and now have 12 horses on the premises. It’s a lot of work to take care of them all. I tend to coordinate all of the veterinary and farrier visits and the maintenance of the infrastructure. I spent several weeks fixing a couple of fence lines on the property so we could put the horses out in the field in the spring.

On top of that, we started a horse supplements company using our science background. My wife and I are PhD scientists, and we’ve gotten rights to use a couple of patented products sold for humans to use in horses. We are developing formulations that are given as supplements to help the horses. One is an anti-inflammatory product based on curcuminoids extracted from turmeric. These are high potency curcuminoids that can be delivered in their feed that help with all kinds of conditions. Another can help support joint health/osteoarthritis, which is a big issue with horses. Both can help with inflammation of their legs – horses’ legs can get stocky and puffy, especially if they are jumpers. We’ve tested the products on our own horses, and their legs are much more comfortable after supplementation. We are still at the tip of the iceberg of what it can do.

My wife Lesley developed her own line of calming products. Throughout COVID-19, she would watch the horses from the house (while on Zoom calls) and would see that they were generally quite anxious. We had one particularly ornery guy, and I went to get him out of his stall, and he did not want to budge. He ended up kicking me square in the chest. My wife started him on her calming supplement, and he’s as cool as a cucumber now. Our clients who’ve used this product are amazed at how calm their horses are. It’s available as a powder to put in their mash or as little cookies we call ‘calming bites.’ The products are based on proven human nutritional ingredients like L-theanine, ashwagandha, and rhodiola. It came down to testing a lot of natural products used for calming and getting the right dose. We have mini-horses who were rescued from an abusive situation, and they did not allow you to get close to them. With this product, they are so much calmer, and maybe life isn’t so bad.

Since we saw so much value in how much this product helped the horses, we are now expanding the calming line into a product for canines. Horse or dog, the same behaviors need addressing: excitability, anxiety, and agitation.

We’ve gone through the process of being approved as a veterinary product by Health Canada and have gone through all of the regulatory steps to go to market. Durwell Equine Naturals was meant to launch in March of 2020, which we know wasn’t the best timing. The company is still relatively new, but we’re growing and starting to sell to retail stores now. We are getting known as a company providing supplements for high-performance athletes.

Besides that, one of the horses on our property is a retired horse from Stanley Park from the Vancouver Police Department – a Clydesdale named Ike. He was our “biggest customer” in the early days of our company – literally at 2 thousand pounds. I get on him bareback, walk him around, and give him some exercise – just two retired guys enjoying life.

Dr. Vince Duronio and retired Stanley Park VPD Clydesdale “Ike”

The Department of Medicine is incredibly grateful to Dr. Duronio for agreeing to be interviewed and being so generous with his time and insight.