A cancer killer? Canadian researcher wins award for virus that could potentially destroy ovarian and breast cancer

Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw (Mitacs)
Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw (Mitacs)

In the midst concerns about surgeries and treatments being impacted by the stress COVID-19 is having on Canada’s health care system, a Canadian researcher is being recognized by Mitacs for engineering cancer-killing viruses to treat breast and ovarian cancer.

“The work that I specifically am doing is looking at breast and ovarian cancers that have become resistant to conventional drug therapy and making viruses that can hopefully overcome the resistance,” Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw, MD-PhD student at the University of Ottawa, told Yahoo Canada.

Her work, explained as “a new option for those patients who’ve run out of options,” involves manipulating viruses at the genetic level. They target the tumour, alter the expression of cancer cells and surrounding cells, and alert the individual’s immune system that a tumour exists.

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“Cancer is such a complex disease and I find it so interesting just knowing that there’s so much work to be done,” Jamieson-Datzkiw said. “There’s a lot of research being done for different chemotherapeutic drugs out there but I just thought it was so cool to come up with these personalized ways that we can treat tumours.”

She explained that the most immediate steps are to try out the viruses in mice to see if they work in different models. The longer term goal for Jamieson-Datzkiw is to reach clinical trials.

“Whether or not my viruses will actually make it there will be decided upon if they’re safe in mice and if they’re effective in mice,” she said. “We have to do a lot of trials before we can begin to decide if it’s worth trying in a person, but…the goal is always to try to figure out something that can be translated to patients.”

People walk past as the Parliament Buildings are lit up in pink in support of Breast Cancer awareness month in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit
People walk past as the Parliament Buildings are lit up in pink in support of Breast Cancer awareness month in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

Mentoring the next generation of researchers

Jamieson-Datzkiw has earned the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — Indigenous Award, and is studying under Carolina Ilkow and John Bell at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

She commended Mitacs for including this category in their awards, which also considered each individual’s involvement in the Indigenous community. Jamieson-Datzkiw revealed that it’s hard to find Indigenous role models.

“I really appreciate that they kind of took into account that as an Indigenous researcher, you’re not just an Indigenous person who’s doing research but you also have an impact on your community,” she said. “I had a really tough time finding mentors along the way and by kind of getting my name out there and saying, ‘hey, this is an Indigenous student who is a leader,’ then maybe it will allow other Indigenous students to reach out to me to ask me for mentorship.”

Jamieson-Datzkiw has been participating in an mentorship program through Let’s Talk Science, where she mentors Indigenous high school students from rural communities outside of Ottawa. The goal of the program is to help these students come up with a science fair project that they will present at the University of Ottawa.

She also identified that a lot of girls are showing interest in science. Jamieson-Datzkiw describes herself as someone who was always interested in the field, and reminisced about reading science books and growing mold in her dresser drawer when she was growing up.

“I really, really appreciate that I can go ahead and say…I’m female, I’m interested in science but you can do it too, and just keep the ball rolling,” Jamieson-Datzkiw said. “It’s actually really amazing that right now, there’s so many female graduate students, there’s actually in some cases more female graduate students than there are males.”

“I think that as more females enter graduate studies and more females are given recognitions like this, it’s encouraging to keep going and keep falling into those leadership roles.”

She also appreciates brining recognition to the partnership with Mitacs for the organization’s work to bring together academia and industry.

“It gives us the opportunity in academia to be exposed to different aspects of science that we wouldn’t necessarily always be exposed to,” Jamieson-Datzkiw said.