Biologist Connie Jean Eaves knows a thing or two about discovery. Her five-decade career in stem cell research has included discoveries in leukemia and breast cancer that were so groundbreaking that she is the 2019 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award Laureate. She’s also a professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of the Terry Fox Laboratory at the BC Cancer Agency.
But she insists that most of the time, discoveries don’t happen the way most people think they do.
“People think that discovery is light bulbs going off,” says Eaves. “Occasionally that happens. You’re looking for something and you see something you never saw before. But it’s much more frequent that you’re working on something, and it doesn’t work out the way you thought, and you make a chance observation that doesn’t fit, and you go back and try to understand it. And then you realize a whole new direction.”
The path from discovery to clinical translation also often doesn’t follow a straight line. But sometimes the path is very direct.
“Sometimes it turns out that the very discovery itself can have a clinical translation, and we have had that experience and that’s very exciting,” adds Eaves.
Her research has led to many innovative tests for cells, both in health and disease. In particular, her observations of blood stem cells led to curative treatments for leukemia through bone marrow transplantation.
“We wanted the tests to be valid so they would always measure the same cells at the same sensitivity and the same accuracy, so that when you applied that test to another scenario, it would feed back information that would have meaning and would be useful,” explains Eaves.
The tests that Eaves developed made it possible for labs all over the world to make their own discoveries. No matter the size of the institution, she helped great ideas take off with new and accessible tools.
“We were a little group way off in the boonies, and how are we going to compete with the big centres all over the world?” says Eaves.
“We knew how to detect cells and we knew that that relied on very special ingredients, just like making a cake. So you’ve got the best saffron in the world and you know where it comes from, you get it, and we decided that instead of just having the big centres able to do things with lots of money, we would make the best materials available to everybody.
“So we would [level] the playing field, and it was going to be a question of brains, not money.”