Scientists put patient care first: World class genetic screening facility in Canada

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We’re in this together. And I’m not referring to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute’s (CHEO RI) innovative genetic screening lab – although more on that in a minute. I mean it takes a village to operate an efficient and effective hospital. And it’s a documented fact that the best hospitals are those that invest in and support basic science research. So as lab scientists at a tertiary care pediatric hospital, we might not work directly with patients but our discoveries are fueled by the same desire to help every patient walking through hospital doors across the country.

So, what exact contribution does a pure scientist make to patient care? Well, efforts of basic scientists have changed healthcare at almost every level. No one can argue the impact that antibiotics and vaccinations (to name but two) have had on our health care system – and all of them have roots in laboratory research.

All lab scientists have an insatiable curiosity for the mechanism of how our bodies work and why. We want to know how a tiny cell knows when to do what it’s going to do. If a cell is going to grow, die, move, age, divide – you name it – it has to receive a signal to do it. Then it has to interpret that signal properly and react appropriately. The study of the human body at the molecular level must be the greatest engineering problem solving activity of all time!

Why is this important? If you look at it from a health or disease point of view, in almost every single instance there’s a miscommunication in how a signal is received or dealt with at the cellular level. Lab scientists aim to understand at the cellular level why things are happening in a clinical setting where we know a clinical researcher is unlikely to find the answer.

At the CHEO RI, my colleague Dr. David Stojdl and I pooled our funds to bring a world-class genetic screening facility to Canada. Ours is one of only a select few in the country, and ours is uniquely set-up to use viruses. This past year alone we’ve been able to screen millions of gene patterns in a fraction of the time it would take using traditional lab practices. While research is never motivated by how fast you can get it done, but rather by what questions you can answer, faster is often better!

I have a keen interest in looking at the beta cells that live in the islet of the pancreas.  When you’re eating, beta cells detect an increase in amount of blood glucose and then secrete insulin. The insulin moves throughout your body and basically tells any insulin-sensitive tissue (fat, muscle, brain, liver,etc. ) to store glucose for future use.  So when you fast, that storage of glucose can be used to keep your body (principally your brain) happy – your brain needs a certain level of glucose in your blood at all times. Everyone should be able to appreciate then, that the pancreatic beta cell – from a Canadian science point of view – is an extremely important cell; one that we and others have argued is the last defense in preventing diabetes. Insulin was discovered in Canada, by the way.

Children with Type 1 diabetes have cell death of their pancreatic beta cells, so they’re not able to mount a sufficient insulin response for blood glucose. Two central questions for my lab are: (1) how can we make beta cells in patients with type 1 diabetes grow (they won’t, and no one knows why!) and (2) we want to know at the cellular level what underlies dysfunction or loss of function in Type 2 diabetes – why don’t they respond to glucose anymore?

Being a lab scientist is definitely a lifestyle choice. It requires long hours, great patience and business acumen to run a lab. The screening facility that we have brought into the CHEO RI is outstanding, but it’s always going to be the hard work and dedication of the investigators, coordinators, students, trainees and volunteers that make the research work.

There is a trend by governments and funding agencies to invest heavily in applied or targeted research projects. But some of the most important discoveries, with huge clinical implications happen as a result of laboratory research into a basic science problem. One example of this is work from Dr. David Stojdl, published recently in Cancer Cell, a prominent medical journal. Using a technology called RNA Interference (RNAi) in our screening lab at CHEO RI, Dr. Stojdl found a way to trick resistant cancer cells into committing suicide following oncolytic virus therapy. Dr. Stojdl’s research team was able to systematically search through the entire human genome to find genes [that when inhibited] would make oncolytic viruses up to 10,000 times more potent at killing tumor cells without harming healthy cells.

His is a potentially game-changing discovery – made in the lab. It took three years for Dr. Stojdl’s research team to make it happen, built upon years of basic science discoveries that could not have been made without funding agencies that appreciate and support the incredible impact of pure science.

Dr. Stojdl and I and our research teams strive to make discoveries today for healthier kids tomorrow. Bravo to all who work tirelessly to find novel and improved therapies for patients! After all, we’re all in this together.