Published: 10-02-2012 00:00 | Updated: 07-02-2016 15:02

Ice hockey champ Mats Sundin donates over 2 million SEK to medical research

Former national ice hockey captain and NHL professional Mats Sundin has made the initial contribution of 2.2 million SEK to establish an elite scientific exchange program between Karolinska Insitutet and the University of Toronto.

The gift will support two fellowships at world-renowned labs in Stockholm and Toronto where scientists are probing how maternal health and our earliest life experiences can determine sickness, health, learning ability and overall well-being down the road.

Karolinska Institutet, the University of Toronto and other possible partners are contributing to the initiative with the objective to build a research fund of one million Canadian dollars (almost 6.6 million SEK).

"I think it's important that all children get a fair start in life, and it feels good to be able to help find ways to prevent disease and help people on the way," says Mats Sundin. "It's a fantastic way for me to give back to society. In my 20 years as a hockey professional I've been involved in a number of charity campaigns, but this is something completely new for me. I see the competitive spirit in scientists and there are many parallels to the elite sport I've been part of."

Historically, genetics were thought to be the sole factor in determining whether a child would grow up to be a healthy, well-functioning adult. Now, scientists are realizing that the interaction between genes and the environment is critical. Teams at U of T and KI are leading the global charge to figure out what environmental factors – from breast-feeding to stress to nutrition – might impact the way a person's genes are expressed, effectively determining their well-being from the early years to later on in life.

"It is becoming increasingly clear to us how the fetal and infant environments affect how susceptible we are to developing social, mental or physical problems as adults," says Dr. Ola Hermanson, senior research fellow at the Department of Neuroscience and scientific coordinator of the project at Karolinska Institutet.

The Mats Sundin Award in Medicine will establish two post-doctoral fellowships in developmental biology – one at KI and one at University of Toronto. The fellows will be chosen from a highly-competitive pool of researchers at each institution, and starting in September 2012, they will travel to their partner institution for a year of research under the direction of world-leading scientists in the field.

"It's great that Mats has come and given us resources to strengthen our partnership with the University of Toronto just when we need them," says Dr. Hermanson. "Western medicine has extended our life expectancy by 25 or 30 years, and of course we want these years to be as good as possible."

"We are focusing particularly closely on whether we can see signs in babies that indicate diseases later on in life, and we hope that we will soon be able to be much better at making such prognoses."

"Karolinska Institutet is very proud to receive this gift. It is our clear goal to promote interactions like this and make the future even brighter for true young ambitious talents in science," said KI President Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson. "The support from Mats Sundin is a great step to improve the already fruitful collaboration between KI and University of Toronto."

The fellowships build on a long and successful exchange program between Karolinska Institutet and University of Toronto dating back to 1996. The exchange program leverages the very best research themes from both institutions to train and develop students into future scientific and medical leaders, with a particular focus on maternal-infant health, neurodevelopment and regenerative medicine.

About the donor

Mats Sundin is one of Sweden's most successful ever ice hockey players. He spent 20 years at the top of the profession until he retired in 2009, after having spent 18 years in the NHL, including 13 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which he also captained. Mats Sundin played 75 international games for the Swedish national team, including three Olympics, seven World Championships, the Canada Cup and the Junior World Championships. He won three World Cup golds and as team captain led the national team to Olympic victory in Turin in 2006.

Mats Sundin scored more points than any other national team player between 1991 and 2006, and still has the best match average. And despite his retirement from the game a few years ago, Mats Sundin remains the highest point-scoring Swede in NHL history.

On the evening of February 11, 2012, Toronto Maple Leafs will honour Mats Sundin by raising his No. 13 jersey to the rafters.

Apart from his interest in helping Karolinska Institutet and the University of Toronto, Mats Sundin is also involved in a variety of charities, such as Min Stora Dag (My Big Day) Foundation for critically ill children and the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.