Granting Funding to Groundbreaking Local Research
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada is proud to support home grown Canadian researchers from all across the country in a continued effort to end blood cancer. This year we added to our prestigious list and granted funding to Dr. Jason Berman and his team from the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Much of their research is focused on finding better therapies for more difficult to treat types of leukemia. Dr. Berman is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist originally from Toronto, Ontario. Dr. Berman completed his residency at Sick Kids Hospital, and then went to Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School to do specialty training in pediatric hematology/oncology. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Dr. Thomas Look where he learned how to use the zebrafish model to study blood development and model leukemia.
Teamwork: Simply stated, is less me and more we
Dr. Berman’s team is composed of many talented individuals from all levels including graduate students, medical students, undergraduate students, post-docs, research associates and technicians - all of whom are involved with these projects for different reasons. Some have personal stories that link them to blood cancers, while others just recognize the importance of finding better cures for patients. The receipt of this grant inspires the Berman lab team to strive for a higher level of scientific excellence. “We were honored to receive this award. It means a lot to us to be recognized nationally. These competitions are highly competitive with excellent research applications from across the country,” says Dr. Berman. “Receiving this reward really creates a positive environment in the lab. That validation that the work we are doing is recognized and is seen as high caliber, really excites the students and the trainees and really makes them strive to achieve the goals of the project.” Dr. Berman is quick to point out that it’s his team that really inspires the work and has earned this award. “Their enthusiasm, their excitement, their commitment to try to find answers, so that their loved one or whomever went through leukemia, lymphoma or other cancer therapy, can do better in the future, motivates them, and they want to contribute to that goal.”
The Need for Better Therapies
Dr. Berman and his team devote much of their research to finding improved and less invasive treatments for more difficult to treat types of leukemia in children such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML). While we typically see positive outcomes for other types of childhood leukemia, such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), AML is a much more aggressive disease and much harder to treat. “Because we treat this disease with such intensive therapy, patients suffer side effects. Those survivors are often left with cardiac damage, risks of secondary cancers, and other complications” says Dr. Berman. “Clearly we need better treatment approaches for this disease, and what we and many other researches are looking at is trying to develop more targeted therapies.”
Zebrafish as a Model for Discovering Better Treatments
The Berman Team has a rather unique method of conducting their research by using a small tropical fish called the zebrafish. Zebrafish maintain highly conserved genetics with humans, and many of the genetic pathways that become perturbed leading to leukemia, are preserved in the zebrafish. “We can manipulate those genes. We can take human genes and insert them into the fish genome and model those types of leukemia in the fish,” Dr. Berman explains. “Because of the conservation between fish and humans, treatments that restore normal blood development in fish are likely to have that same response in humans.”
Swimming in Success
Positive results have already come from the groundbreaking research that Dr. Berman and his team are conducting. In prior work they have been able to successfully identify medications currently on the market that may be more effective in a specific subtype of high risk leukemia. Dr. Berman’s team has also been able to take human cancer cells, put them into zebrafish and then test specific drugs by introducing them into the tank water. Through this approach it would suggest that zebrafish could be used to help personalize therapy for patients by matching drugs to which their leukemia responded in the fish, to the patient. Dr. Berman’s lab was in fact the Canadian lab that pioneered this approach. An exciting aspect of this research is that it could be used in real time during the treatment process. “Uniquely in the fish we can engraft human leukemia cells in a very short time period, about a week, which is fast enough that we could actually inform some of the clinical decision making regarding these patients,” says Dr. Berman.
Using the same method Dr. Berman’s team is also able to look at some of the side effects of these therapies to find safer treatments. For example, “when you expose zebrafish to certain (cancer) drugs, the fish too suffer heart damage similar to what is observed in patients,” Dr. Berman explains. “Using this transplant approach we could study drugs that protect the heart without impacting the effect of the chemotherapy drugs on killing the human cancer cells.”
Patient Care and Research – Two Side of the Same Coin
In addition to being a researcher, Dr. Berman is also a clinician, so he interacts directly with patients in his research. Dr. Berman talks of how his roles in both research and clinical practice really help balance and motivate him to continuously strive for better cures. “I see the toxicity in patients. I see patients who are not cured even with all the best therapy we have in 2016. So that really inspires me to go back to the lab and try to find better treatments. We hope to ultimately bring therapeutic discoveries in the zebrafish,to patients, both my own patients here in Halifax and children suffering from leukemia across Canada, through my role running clinical trials in childhood cancer. This is what I like to call, from the tankside to the bedside, with the ultimate goal of being able to try to improve care for all children with blood cancers.”
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If you or a loved one is currently dealing with a blood cancer diagnosis you can request an Empower Pack, a FREE care package for blood cancer patients by clicking the image below;