Ray Rajotte just wouldn't say `no'
By Zanne Cameron
Ray Rajotte, '71 BSc(Eng), 75 PhD, recalls attending a conference where the ballyhoo was that a cure for diabetes was imminent. That was in the '70s. "We didn't expect it to take 30 years at all," says the unprepossessing U of A professor of surgery and medicine.
Rajotte is the director of the University's now-famous Islet Transplantation Group that developed the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure that has produced insulin independence in all 14 people on whom it was tested.
Success didn't come easily, however. Rajotte and his team have been Studying islet cell transplantation and how to finesse the procedure that now seems so simple for almost 30 years. The team that he put together over the years was one of a handful who stuck with the project. Put off by failure, others dropped hy the wayside.
Rajotte's decidedly 'unswank' office in a back corner of the Dentistry/Pharmacy Centre belies the relaxed composure of the man. It is overflowing with papers, binders, journals, and more paper, all precariously underpinned by a desk, shelves, and cabinets, circa 1960. He is graduate director of the Surgical Medical Research Institute of the Department of Surgery and, on top of his own research, Rajotte guides the research of masters and PhD students fortunate enough to come under his mentorship.
Rajotte says he owes much to his own powerful mentor, the renowned Pere Athol Murray of Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. "He taught all his boys to set goals way high up and to strive for those goals, to do whatever you have to do to reach those goals." That ethic is reflected in the members of the Islet Group, many of whom happen to be "Alberta boys," as Rajotte calls them. Prairie perseverance is just their way.
Rajotte slowly built the team over the years with the long view of the farmer, knowing that as a basic scientist lie would need clinical colleagues on board. And lie is quick to point out that the Group's success was a collaborative effort. "A lot of people worldwide have contributed to certain aspects of the project, and in our own centre, it has truly been a team effort," lie says. "The Uniqueness in Fdnionton is that we have no walls. We all work together to cure this disease." He does not label the Edmonton Protocol a cure. "A cure would mean that diabetes could bc prevented entirely."
Perhaps Rajotte's tenacity springs from his roots on the family tarm near Wainwright, Alberta. "As a farm boy, if problems arise you learn to just do what needs to be done. If a tractor breaks, you just fix it yourself."
Rajotte hcgan as an X-ray technician, graduating from NAITs inaugural class. When he discovered his interest in research, he went into mechanical engineering—then the closest thing to biomedical engineering at the University. Using his farmboy know how, when something necessary to his research wasn't available, he fashioned it himself. "In the '60s we had to build our own microwaves—you just didn't go out and buy a Toshiba." He augmented his engineering courses by taking all of his options in surgery and medicine, "I became a sort of self-educated biomedical engineer," he says.
A major driving force for Rajotte and his team has always been diabetic children and their parents. "You see these young children and you know that their quality of life is going to he terrible; and they ask you, `Dr. Rajotte will there ever be a cure for diabetes,' Also the motivation of people who have diabetic children is phenomenal." The Alberta Foundation for Diabetic Research was formed in 1988 by a local group who all had one thing in common, a child with diabetes. They have contributed more than $2 million to the research team.
Rajotte has had little tinic for leisure pursuits. His passions are "the curiosity of new discovery," and his family. "My dear wife would say `I wish you'd spent more time with us,"' he reluctantly admits. Still, with her strength and support, they have raised three children and made family a priority. Rajotte enjoyed rompetitive horse jumping with his children when they were young. "Rather than watching them and freezing, I decided I might as well do it too." Major holidays and Sunday dinners with family have anchored the demands of his research, much of it done in the wee hours after work and on weekends. If push came to shove, Rajotte could do without most things except for his family.
Asked about his weaknesses, Rajotte is stuck. "I must have lots," he says. Maybe I talk too much?" Eager to pitch in, voices from outside the door happily supply a few others. "Oreo's and chocolate-covered cherries," chimes in his daughter, who works in biomedical research. "Clutter," contributes his long-time assistant, Colleen Ruptash. "He can't say `no,"' says his secretary, Rosemarie Henley, who has been been with him for over a decade. "Is that a weakness?" asks Rajotte, whose inability to say "no" helped him make medical history.
Published Winter 2001.