‘Canadian Science Boxes Above Its Weight Class’

After more than 30 years of groundbreaking work in understanding cancer, this researcher joins select company as a Gairdner Award laureate.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

In the 1990s, John E. Dick was still a relatively new faculty member when he got his closest brush with the prestigious Gairdner Awards. He was asked to sit on a first-level review board, tasked with shortlisting candidates based on excellence and international impact on human health. To date, 96 Gairdner laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research.

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” says Dick, senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

“I never imagined that I would be, you know, at the other end of that spectrum.”

Today, he is a 2022 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate for his work on leukemia, which are cancers of the blood. His research changed the entire field of cancer treatment, but it started with understanding the healthy formation of new blood cells.

“When I began my work in the late 1980s, I was very interested in trying to understand what a normal human blood stem cell looks like, and how the process for leukemia began,” explains Dick.

“So over the course of 30 years, we basically narrowed down the kind of cell that actually is a human blood stem cell. And that has led to advances in trying to use stem cells for therapy.”

Stem cells have the unique ability to produce more of themselves, or to differentiate into other more specialized cell types that the body needs to function. Without stem cells, there would be no source to replace cells as they are injured, or naturally wear out and die.

“On the cancer side it was the same problem,” says Dick.

“Leukemia can grow massively in the bloodstream of a person, but we still don’t have ways of growing them in a lab dish. And as we started to do that work, we basically asked the question, well does every leukemia cell have the ability to grow blood? And it turned out that only about one in a million cells had that ability.”

He went on to isolate those rare cells, and as he studied them he observed that they shared similar properties to normal blood stem cells.

“That led to the idea that there was such a thing as a leukemia stem cell: in other words, a stem cell for the leukemia.”

That was the first time someone had articulated this idea that cancers could have stem cells, and that went a long way towards understanding why certain leukemia treatments could seem to work so well at first, but patients could still relapse over time. Any treatment that kills specialized cancer cells while leaving cancer stem cells alive don’t target the source of the leukemia.

“After about 10 years, people realized that that actually is true for solid tumours as well, and that that led to the whole idea that there are cancer stem cells that might exist in multiple tumour types, not just in the blood system,” adds Dick.

“So there’s a stem cell for that cancer. And it’s those cells that keep the cancer going, and it turns out that their properties are often different than the bulk of the cancer cells that are there. Often they’re dormant, which means they can swim in a sea of chemotherapy agents and therefore not be killed, leading to relapse of the disease. So they’re really fundamentally important to understand what those cells are.”

Stem cells have since been discovered in cancers of the breast, brain, colon, pancreas, skin and liver.

As Dick reflects on the honour of being a Gairdner Award laureate, he thinks about all the people he has worked with over his career and the contributions they made to the field.

“I’m recognized, when it’s been the work of tremendous, you know, more than 130-40 trainees who’ve been through my lab. And you know, I get singled out, but I accept this award on their behalf,” says Dick.

“And the other thing is the Gairdner Prize is such a prestigious prize. It’s actually relatively few Canadians that have gotten it. And so I also accept it on behalf of Canadian science, which is tremendous. I think Canadian science boxes above its weight class, so to speak, around the world. So I accept it on their behalf, as well.”

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