Making Discovery ‘A Question of Brains, Not Money’

Discovery drives scientific progress. But as one decorated biologist reminds us, the path from idea to application isn't always easy.

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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.”

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Connie Jean Eaves’ research has focused on leukemia and breast cancer and the normal tissues in which these diseases originate. Eaves, along with her scientist husband, Allen Eaves, and a dedicated group of talented trainees, developed methodologies to isolate putative stem cells from living mouse and human tissues and detect them based on their ability to grow as single cells in specialized tissue cultures or in transplanted mice. This made it possible to quantify blood and mammary gland stem cells and discover a hidden population of suppressed normal blood stem cells in patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, an observation that stimulated a search for new therapies for this disease. Her group also showed that leukemic stem cells are actually not dividing most of the time. Her studies of breast cells revealed that similar principles apply to understanding the normal growth of this tissue.

More recently, Eaves has developed new methods for creating human leukemia and breast cancer experimentally. She is to be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in May 2019.

Throughout her distinguished career, Eaves has demonstrated outstanding national and international leadership. She co-founded the Terry Fox Laboratory at the BC Cancer Agency, was a leader in the Canadian Stem Cell Network and held multiple senior roles in the National Cancer Institute of Canada, where she spearheaded the establishment of the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance to create the first national source of breast cancer research funding in Canada.

In addition to the national and international accolades received throughout her career, Eaves is recognized for her exceptional commitment to the training of more than 100 scientists from around the world, including many now in senior leadership positions. Eaves is also a passionate advocate for the advancement of women in science, a commitment that led to her recognition as a Status of Women Canada Pioneer.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.