Top-two finish for UAlberta at Falling Walls Lab

Lian Willetts’ presentation on prostate cancer metastasis leads to second-place finish at international research competition.


(Edmonton) A University of Alberta researcher’s work to identify patients at greatest risk of prostate cancer cells spreading to another part of the body has earned a top award at a showcase of the world’s best up-and-coming research talent.

Lian Willetts’ presentation on prostate cancer metastasis earned her second place in a field of 100 scientists who gathered in Berlin Nov. 8 and 9 for the Falling Walls Lab finale. The international conference offers young scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators a stage to pitch their research ideas to their peers and a distinguished jury of academics and business leaders.

Willetts, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of U of A oncologist John Lewis, was one of three researchers representing the U of A at the finale after she had previously won the university’s Falling Walls qualifier competition held Sept. 30.

Personal tragedy and the death of Willetts’ mother sparked her interest in cancer research, and metastasis in particular. Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells from a primary site to another part of the body.

“She first was diagnosed with a pain in her sacrum (at the base of the spine), but she died from lung cancer,” Willetts explained at the U of A Falling Walls competition. “She wouldn’t have passed away if the cancer hadn’t spread.”

The other two 2015 Falling Walls finalists from the U of A were Joshua Lee, a PhD candidate in the lab of Toshifumi Yokota in the Department of Medical Genetics, and Gem Shoute, a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Watch Lian Willetts' winning presentation

As one of the top three finishers, Lian Willetts had a chance to give her presentation on the grand stage of the Falling Walls Conference Nov. 9 in front of 600 guests.

Second top-two finish

This is the second year in a row that a U of A researcher has placed in the top two. Nermeen Youssef, also a graduate student in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, placed second for pitching her idea of using blue light to stimulate engineered fat cells to secrete insulin—an idea that could lead to needle-free management of Type 1 diabetes.

Falling Walls was established in 2011 and was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.

The University of Alberta Falling Walls event was sponsored by Startup Edmonton, TEC Edmonton, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environmental Solutions, the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, eHUB, the University of Alberta Office of Advancement and the German-Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research.