Cell Secrets

Dr. Tamra Werbowetski-Ogilvie examines MRI scans of human medulloblastoma tumour growth progression in a mouse brain.

THE BRAIN AND HOW IT WORKS captured Dr. Tamra Werbowetski-Ogilvie’s interest when she was about 10 years old.

“I wanted to be an ophthalmologist,” she remembers. “Then I decided that touching eyes would be gross, but I still really loved neuroscience.”

Today, the associate professor of biochemistry and medical genetics in the Max Rady College of Medicine holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair in neuro-oncology and human stem cells. Her research focuses on medulloblastoma, the most common type of cancerous brain tumour in children.

Using chemotherapy to treat pediatric brain tumours can cause severe intellectual and physical effects on a child’s developing nervous system, Werbowetski-Ogilvie says. Her lab is working to find ways to target the tumours with less toxic drugs.

Many such tumours appear similar under a microscope, but in the last eight years, researchers have discovered that medulloblastoma is actually four or five different diseases, some more aggressive than others.

“The diseases may look the same under the microscope, but when you look at their DNA, RNA and proteins and examine how they’re molecularly different, that’s when you see the difference.”

In a study published last year in Cancer Research, Werbowetski-Ogilvie and her team found that there was a particular marker on the surface of the brain tumour stem cells they were studying.

They observed that cells with this marker were more susceptible to the drug selumetinib, which hadn’t been known to affect these tumours. It was an important discovery, she says, because it’s believed that the stem cells act like the root of a tree, and if you wipe out the stem cell, you wipe out the tumour.

“What was really cool was that you could use this drug to target those cells successfully, and in an animal model, it really slowed down tumour growth. It didn’t kill the tumour completely, but it looked like it could be used in combination with something else.” Based on this, the lab team is now investigating drug combination strategies.

Werbowetski-Ogilvie, who was raised in Thunder Bay, Ont., received an honours bachelor of science from Western University in 2000 and a PhD from McGill University in 2006. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster University before joining the U of M in 2010.

She was attracted to the U of M, she says, because it was expanding its program in regenerative medicine – the field that develops therapies such as growing new organs from human cells or using stem cells to help the body repair itself.

“I came here to help build something, and I think we’ve done that successfully,” she says. “To see this program grow over the last 10 years has been very exciting.”

Werbowetski-Ogilvie’s lab looks at how proteins in cancer stem cells act as “control switches,” helping to choose which genes are turned on or off inside the cells. “We want to know how these proteins control other genes, interact with other proteins and regulate tumor growth,” she says. “We also want to determine how these genes play different roles in medulloblastoma growth, versus normal development.”

The scientist is passionate about discoveries that push research in a new direction.

“I love when I find something new, and it doesn’t have to be what’s expected,” she says. “Some students get all caught up in ‘I got this result and it’s different.’ I say, ‘That’s what you want. You want a game-changer. You want something that might be paradigm-shifting.’

“It can be more difficult to convince people when it’s against the norm, but I personally find those discoveries the most compelling.”

Werbowetski-Ogilvie, who has two kids of her own, says her love of children motivates her to find new ways to treat medulloblastoma.

“If I can help find something that would help kids live a long life, but also improve their quality of life, that would be very rewarding,” she says.