My role since joining the BC Cancer Agency has been that of a full time scientist in the Terry Fox Laboratory (TFL). Currently I am Director of the TFL, a bustling interdisciplinary research group that now numbers some 12 scientists, over 80 trainees (split between graduate students and post doctoral fellows) and a cadre of highly specialized technical and research support staff.
My primary role throughout my almost 30 years here has been to direct my own research lab where we focus on cancers of the blood. Our work is directed towards two major types of cells: normal cells in the bone marrow that allow for the lifelong production of our blood cells and abnormal cells that underlie the disordered—and all too frequently fatal—production of leukemic cells in cancers of the blood system.
A key feature of both of these types of stem cells (simply referred to as normal versus leukemic stem cells) is their ability to divide and produce more of themselves, a process called self-renewal. This, coupled with their ability to give rise to specialized daughter cells, accounts for their enormous importance in both the context of normal and leukemic blood cell production. In the case of normal stem cells, this growth potential is so massive that it is possible to totally reconstitute the blood forming system in someone whose bone marrow has been destroyed (for example during treatment of leukemia with potent drugs) by a process of stem cell transplantation.
My lab has put a major effort into trying to understand the molecules and genes in normal stem cells that control their self-renewal properties. We hope to harness these to stimulate the production of even more stem cells and improve the safety of stem cell transplantation. On the flip side, we are also interested in understanding the molecular and genetic changes that occur to give rise to abnormal leukemic stem cells – here the hope being to counteract the effect of these changes to suppress or kill leukemic stem cells.
We are making progress. In the last few years, with the help of many trainees and collaborators, we have discovered some extremely potent ways to stimulate normal stem cell production and are now moving toward clinical trials. On the leukemia side, we have added to the recognition of several key genes that can trigger leukemic transformation. This now gives us new ways to generate models of leukemia in the laboratory to test new ways to suppress to leukemic growth.