Researcher harnessing viruses to fight cancer

(Edmonton) According to Maya Shmulevitz, the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is never more apt than when a researcher is looking through the microscope at the often misunderstood and universally feared world of viruses.

“The beautiful thing about viruses is how tailored they are,” said Shmulevitz, professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and freshly minted Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Oncotherapy. “Depending on where they want to go and what they want to do, it’s almost like they evolve to be perfect for the task.”

Shmulevitz, an alumna of the University of Alberta, thinks that ability to navigate the human body and evolve to perform specific duties makes viruses perfect for the fight against cancer.

“Everybody always thinks of viruses as bad and having disease-causing characteristics, but there is a group of viruses called oncolytic viruses, which have been shown to selectively replicate in, and kill, cancer cells. These viruses can’t replicate or kill a normal cell, but give them a cancer cell and they grow really well.”

Shmulevitz and her team have been able to show that one particular virus, known as the reovirus, is quite effective in battling certain cancers in lab models and, to a lesser extent, in humans. The researchers are now working on retooling the virus to make it work even better.

“In our clinical trials, the process showed some anti-tumour activity but it was incomplete and needs to be improved,” she said. “We’re working on fine-tuning the virus to overcome some of the challenges, and looking at ways to change the cancer cells, like adding the virus and adding a drug at the same time, to make the viruses kill the cancer cells even better.”

With the addition of Shmulevitz, as well as five renewals and one advancement, the U of A now has 88 Canada Research Chairs with a total value this year of $13.2 million.

"The Canada Research Chairs program remains a key part of our country's drive to be a global knowledge generator, strengthening Canada's abilities in innovation and economic leadership,” said Lorne Babiuk, vice-president of research. “We are once again delighted with the quality of the individuals selected for CRC renewals, advancement and new awards, and the University of Alberta offers its congratulations to these outstanding researchers.”

Shmulevitz was named a Tier 2 CRC researcher—a title that comes with a $500,000 award paid out over five years, given to emerging researchers who are acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field.

Shmulevitz says the university community’s support for research is one of the factors behind her success, as is the cutting-edge infrastructure and resources, which she says are “signs of a thriving university.”

But what impresses her most about the U of A is the people.

“Basically, the calibre of my colleagues and the opportunities for collaboration … there are just so many interesting projects that interrelate that you can find ways to connect on,” said Shmulevitz. “I also thank the world each and every day for the students I have. They are very keen and enthusiastic for these projects.”

Thomas Stachel, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, was advanced from Tier 2 to Tier 1, jumping his funding to $1.4 million paid out over seven years. This award is given to researchers acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields.

Stachel, Canada Research Chair in Diamonds, came to Canada from the University of Frankfurt five years ago to better understand the origin and occurrence of diamonds in hopes of improving the mining operations of Canadian diamond mines.

Tier 1 renewals include famed paleontologist Philip Currie, CRC in Dinosaur Paleobiology; Liang Li, CRC in Analytical Chemistry, who explores the role of proteomics and metabolics in biosciences; and Christopher Power, CRC in Neurologic Infection and Immunity, who uses neuroimaging, molecular biology and nanotechnologies to study infectious and immune diseases of the brain.

Renewed as Tier 2 CRC are Nadir Erbilgin, CRC in Forest Entomology, who came from the University of California, Berkeley to help develop pest-management strategies for use against the mountain pine beetle; and Brenda Parlee, CRC in Social Responses to Ecological Change, who investigates community responses to the effects of resource development on the land, water and wildlife in the Northwest Territories.

In 2000, the Government of Canada created a permanent program to establish 2,000 research professorships—Canada Research Chairs—in eligible degree-granting institutions across the country. The program invests $300 million per year to attract and retain some of the world's most accomplished and promising minds.