Stars of the IRCM - Dr. Peter W. Schiller

Stars of the IRCM - Dr. Peter W. Schiller

Dr. Peter W. Schiller
Tackling pain and mitochondrial diseases 

This series of short portraits focuses on scientists whose careers have marked the history of the IRCM for decades.

A great scientific career is multi-faceted and can hardly be summarized in a few paragraphs. Dr. Peter W. Schiller's is substantial, and continues with us today as Professor Emeritus at the IRCM (since 2020).

You know him well, as you pass him in the corridors of the IRCM, no doubt exchanging a smile with him. As affable as he is discreet, Dr. Peter W. Schiller has been a leading scientist at the IRCM for many years, where he chose to work from the very beginning of his fruitful career. Dr. Schiller was recruited as a young researcher by the founder of the IRCM, Dr. Jacques Genest himself.

Dr. Genest wanted a peptide specialist, I was recommended by my PhD professor in Zurich, and here I am at the IRCM. I immediately liked the context, and also Canada, as I was an avid skier.

In the early days of the IRCM

Dr. Schiller became part of the IRCM, a very different IRCM than the one we have today. Dr. Schiller, with a twinkle in his eye, describes a building still under construction and a handful of laboratories focused on specific areas. A far cry from all the research and clinical hubs of the 2023 IRCM, which makes Dr. Schiller very proud.

Jacques Genest would be pleased to see the evolution of the IRCM in the 45 years since my arrival. The IRCM is truly one of the best biomedical research institutes in Canada. And life at the IRCM has changed a lot. In the early years, people smoked at scientific committee meetings and there were no female lab directors.

Dr. Schiller's contribution to the IRCM scientific family is invaluable, with his work transcending time and contributing to the success of the Institute for several decades. The career of this leading scientist spans nearly half a century and extends beyond the borders of Quebec and even Canada. 

This chemist trained at some of the world's leading institutions, including ETH Zurich and Johns Hopkins University (in the United States), worked in the laboratory of the renowned Dr. Christian Anfinsen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1972), at the NIH. 

Born in Frauenfeld, Switzerland, Dr. Schiller has strong ties to his home country. He was a fellow of the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research (1972-1973). The influence of his expertise spans several continents, from the National Institutes of Health in the United States (1974) to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in 1998. From his office at the IRCM, he talks about his many international collaborations, as he is always regularly invited to the most prestigious international congresses and symposiums in his field.

I have kept in touch with many collaborators over the years.

Drug candidates for pain and mitochondrial diseases

Since 1975, he has been Director of the Chemical and Polypeptide Biology Research Unit at our institution. A pioneer in the field of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology of opioid peptides, his research is now focused on the development of new pain medications with fewer side effects, such as dependence, tolerance and respiratory depression, than those commonly used, such as morphine. Of note: In 1991, Dr. Schiller was awarded the Canada Pacific Chair in Pain, in connection with the work of his IRCM lab.

With Professor Hazel Szeto at Cornell Medical College, Dr. Schiller discovered Szeto-Schiller (SS)-peptides which have major therapeutic potential for the treatment of mitochondrial diseases. IRCM and the Cornell Research Foundation hold several joint patents on these promising compounds and Stealth BioTherapeutics, Inc. is pursuing their clinical development for various rare and common mitochondrial disease indications.

With more than 420 scientific papers and 17 patents to his credit, Dr. Schiller's discoveries include important compounds that are now used as pharmacological tools around the world. His research projects have been supported by CIHR for 43 years and by NIH for 30 years. He is one of only two Quebecers to have won an NIH MERIT Award, which is an eight-year grant.

During his career, he has been a visiting professor at prestigious institutions such as the College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, USA, ETH Zurich, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and the National University of Singapore. In addition, he has held leadership roles in some of the most influential scientific organizations in his field of study and has served as an editorial board member for leading scientific journals.  

An important link for the IRCM

With this enviable career and multiple awards and honours, including the Order of Quebec and election to the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. Peter W. Schiller is now Research Professor Emeritus at the IRCM since March 2020. In this role, he is an important link for the Institute with partners such as the Université de Montréal, but also with all the international collaborators who are so valuable for the development of the IRCM. He is still often asked to give his opinion on candidates for promotion or to nominate scientists for awards and honors. He continues to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Center for Drug Discovery at Northeastern University. He still participates in the review of many manuscripts and papers and is often consulted on scientific issues involving peptides and structural biology, as well as drug development.

Great careers are complex and difficult to summarize. But, as in Dr. Schiller's case, they have in common that they remain fully relevant over time, and help shape the science of the future.

Thank you, Dr. Schiller.

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