Courteney Lai, Graduate Student (PhD), Terry Fox Laboratory, BC Cancer Agency Research Centre; and President, Graduate Student and Post Doctoral Society of the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre

As my close family has, unfortunately, been affected by cancer, I can relate to that feeling of urgency and desire to accelerate research and better understand cancer. As a family member, I want to know that more effective and less toxic treatments are on the horizon. As a researcher, I want to discover the same thing. This means learning how cancers exert their effect and finding the changes that occur on the cellular level, so that potential drug targets can be identified.

Leukemia is cancer of the blood, the name is derived from the Greek language: leuko meaning white and emia meaning disorder or condition of the blood. This is what I’ve been studying in the Terry Fox Laboratory of the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre (CRC). I’d like to explain what leukemia is and what I’ve been studying that motivates me to get out of bed, even on a gloomy February morning in Vancouver (like today!).

Every day, billions of new blood cells are produced in your body in the space inside your bones, called bone marrow. They begin life like babies, only able to accomplish basic tasks in the body. For most cells, their main purpose is to mature into fully functioning blood cells that have specific jobs. After maturation, most of these blood cells leave their “home” for the wider world of the body where they perform their given jobs, like carrying oxygen to our muscles or guarding against infection. The remaining small portion of cells in the bone marrow are known as stem cells, and they remain immature to maintain their potential for maturing into all different types of cells or for replenishing this pool of blood cells.

With such a specific and defined role for each blood cell, you can imagine how critical it is to maintain the correct balance of all these different types of cells needed by the body. As a cancer of the blood, leukemia is generally identified by an inability of blood cells to mature and a huge increase in the number of immature blood cells, causing an abnormal imbalance. My research at the CRC focuses on understanding the triggers that cause the blood system to go haywire and fall off balance. I hope that by unveiling these imbalance mysteries, we can find weak spots that may be ideal targets for therapies, with the hope of interrupting the development and progression of the disease.

Hopefully I’ve been able to help detangle the events that occur when we hear “leukemia” and provide a glimpse into my research.

Courteney