Research and Breakthroughs

“Bays of Our Lives” Featuring Phil Dubé, PhD

I recently caught up with Philip Dubé, PhD, a gastroenterology researcher in the lab of Brent Polk, MD, for the first installment of our new “Bays of Our Lives” series. That’s Phil pictured above.

Phil’s research focuses on the mechanisms of inflammatory bowel disease,a condition that includes Crohn’s disease and colitis. He is specifically interested in studying how the processes of inflammation and healing interact, and finding out what factors can tip the scale in either direction.

While “inflammation” may sound harmless, Phil explains that one of the most common results of chronic inflammation is cancer. So after showing me some colonoscopy videos and images of colon cancer, he started off our talk with a question for me:

Phil: What part of your body has the most contact with the outside world?

Your skin?

Nope, but that’s what most people think. Let’s say that you take the entire surface area of your skin and spread it out. It would be about the size of a twin bed.

You do the same with your lungs, and it would cover the size of a tennis court.

But if you did this with your gut, it would be the size of a football field! So actually, your gastrointestinal tract has the most surface area interacting with the outside world. It’s not the sexiest part of the body, but it is the largest interface between your body and the environment. We are just beginning to appreciate that many important aspects of health and disease are impacted by your gut.

So what do you love most about this job?

I like discovering new things. At the end of the day, that is absolutely the most exciting part about be here. That’s what drives me, and I think that’s what drives most scientists because we aren’t in it for the money (laughs).

For me, I’d say that the next thing is teaching—especially when people get excited about things I’m excited about. Our lab is very big into supporting the LA-HIP Program here at CHLA. These high school kids, they’re super fun to work with. They come in, terrified at first. I’m a “doctor,” and I’m asking them to do high-tech things and it’s great to see them become confident and to learn and to master things that some grad students can’t even do.

Did you have any mentors while you were in school?

I’ve had many mentors. In graduate school, I had an amazing supervisor and she taught me so much. Not just bench things and how to become a scientist, but how to become a good person.

And that’s what you’re trying to do with the LA-HIP students.

Oh we try, we try. As a teacher, you teach them, but then have to set them free. It’s up to them to take what you teach and go on with their lives.

I think it’s fascinating to realize how little we know, even now. A lot of people in different fields think that everything in medicine or anatomy, or at all related to the human body, has been figured out.

Yeah, you know that a lot of anatomy departments shuttered up their doors 10, 20 years ago because they thought we knew everything. And then it was just a few years back that they found a new ligament in the knee.

Exactly! We really don’t know everything. Even at that gross scale, let alone in the molecular pathways, mechanisms and interactions that you can’t see.

Oh no, we don’t have the answers. Take solid tumors, especially in adults, and chronic diseases—we still don’t understand a lot about those. And developmental and cognitive issues are really still a complete black box. There are so many things that still need to be explored.

And unfortunately, it’s very easy to lose the advances that we have made. With any financial crisis, what’s the first thing that will be cut? Research funding. Especially pediatric research funding.

Research is a human endeavor that’s passed down from one scientist to the next. We are constantly building upon the discoveries and steps that were made before us. All you need to do is get rid of a generation of researchers and then we won’t have anything to build upon.

That’s a scary thought. What would you say to young students to inspire them to continue on into research?

I’d tell them that it’s an exciting career. Literally, where you get to chart your own course and discover what you’re interested in and ultimately, hopefully, help someone. There are a lot of challenges though too. Can you get into med school? Can you get into grad school? Can you complete your thesis and get into a residency program and a fellowship? I can geek out and tell kids how much fun it is, but I also want to inject some reality into the discussion.

That being said, you are exposed to so many brilliant ideas and different people. I’m a Canadian guy from Toronto who ended up here in L.A. via Nashville. So you definitely lead a unique, interesting life.

Alright, we’re almost done here. Do you have a life motto?

Does anyone really have a life motto? I don’t think that I have one, but I do think that it’s very important to be open-minded and receptive to other people and new ideas. But at the same time, you should be fair and critical in how you incorporate those ideas into your own life.

Spoken like a true scientist.