Sequence for Success

This Ukrainian-trained doctor studied the Chernobyl disaster and is using her expertise to make strides in radiation research, here in Alberta

photos by Rod Leland

TOP MARKS: University of Lethbridge researcher Olga Kovalchuk, whose research is funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, was recently named one of the Globe & Mail’s ‘Top 40 under 40’.

April 26th changed Olga Kovalchuk’s world forever. It was 1986 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident had just happened, yet many nearby residents of the former Soviet Union had no idea of what was unfolding. She was 16 at the time, growing up in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine – 600 kilometres away from the disaster site – and May Day celebrations came and went as they do every year, complete with parades.

“At first it didn’t really register at all because there was no information,” recalls Dr. Kovalchuk, now a researcher at the University of Lethbridge. “I don’t think the magnitude of it ever really registered.” But news started spreading. Her father, the associate vice-president of research at the Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University, heard stories of researchers around the site reporting high levels of radiation.

“Then, all of a sudden, it was on TV and they were talking about how many people died,” she says. “Then, of course, there was a little bit of panic.”

She still has no way of really knowing if she suffered any radiation exposure from the accident: “Who knows?”

At age 18, Kovalchuk enrolled in university to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a doctor and she started thinking about the incident more. “As soon as you go into university, you start re-thinking certain things, looking from a different perspective at what had happened, the consequences and repercussions,” says Kovalchuk.

This line of thinking sparked a lifelong passion for Kovalchuk, one that has led her to study the effects of radiation on the human body. Those studies have taken her around the world, ultimately leading to her current position at the University of Lethbridge as a molecular geneticist. Here in Alberta, she studies in the field of epigenetics, uncovering how environmental factors cause certain genes to turn on or off. Her hope is to develop diagnostic and treatment tools for people affected by radiation, including cancer patients.

For the highly respected researcher, who was recently named one of the Globe and Mail’s Top 40 Under 40 at age 39, it has been a long path where she is always seeking the next mystery in a very complicated puzzle.

Kovalchuk married her husband, Igor Kovalchuk, in 1989 as the couple both completed their medical degrees in Ukraine. After finishing her residency in 1994, they went on to study in Switzerland as part of their graduate studies. There weren’t a lot of full-time job opportunities at the time, but both found positions in the biology and genetics department. “Our common interest was to look for a new bio-monitoring system that could be applied to monitor genetic danger present in the contaminated areas (around Chernobyl),” Kovalchuk says.

She wanted to use her research to develop useful tools that would help those affected by the accident. “You always want to bring your research to the general public,” she says.

Kovalchuk’s attention turned to plants as the World Health Organization had already approved a plant-based test, where seeds could be germinated and the plant DNA screened for chromosome damage caused by radiation. “It provided a really good molecular background within a reasonable period of time and it was very easy to present this information to the general public,” she says.

In 1998, she released a research paper about using genetically-modified plants as bio-monitors in the Chernobyl area. From there, Kovalchuk began to delve deeper into radiation’s effects. She had been to Canada before, so when the couple had the good fortune of both landing jobs with the University of Lethbridge, they moved in 2001. “It was just meant to be,” she says.

IN THE GENES: Dr. Olga Kovalchuk examines a DNA sequence at her Lethbridge lab. Her research continues to reveal how cells communicate.

It’s one thing to analyze how radiation affects plants, but Kovalchuk decided to switch her research focus when she came to Canada. “You inevitably always have the question: ‘Do you know how that will translate into the human situation?’ I got tired of saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and I decided it was time to switch gears,” she says.

Kovalchuk put her life’s work into understanding how radiation affects animals. It was a serendipitous moment during a lab test with mice, using males and females from the same litter and therefore with similar genetic profiles, that shocked her in 2004. “When the data came back, we had this big eureka moment that there were actually way more differences between males and females than we could even think of,” says Kovalchuk. “Males and females actually respond totally differently (to irradiation).”

As a dedicated researcher, Kovalchuk doesn’t jump to conclusions. Finding out that certain sets of genes react differently to radiation exposure in mice didn’t necessarily mean the same would be true in humans. But, if the research does apply to humans as well, Kovalchuk explains that it could change our thinking about where to look for radiation damage in the body. For cancer patients, she wanted to know how the radiation treatment would affect the specific region and other areas in the body. This could lead to better treatment options and improved understanding of how radiation causes secondary tumours. It could also shed light on what can be done to help protect the children of parents who have been exposed to radiation.

Cells communicate all the time, although it’s not fully understood quite what the messenger in those conversations is, or how it works. But what Kovalchuk has learned is that even cells in the body that are shielded from radiation can be affected by irradiation in another part of the body. “In other words, cells that are in the neighbourhood – in the proximity of the directly radiated cells – will also respond to radiation. It’s called bystander radiation,” she explains.

She’s also collaborating with U.K. researcher Dr. Yuri Dubrova who, like Kovalchuk, worked in Chernobyl for several years. They’ve shown that the offspring of irradiated parents will exhibit increased mutation rates, meaning the children of parents who were exposed to radiation also suffer health effects, even if they are not directly exposed.

“I want to know what is happening when the organism is exposed – what types of dangers does it cause, or not cause, in the organism’s offspring,” Kovalchuk says.

Preliminary results indicate that changes in where the gene chromosomes are placed could increase the risk for some types of cancer. In several studies, certain tissues in males were more sensitive to radiation and in other tissues, females experienced greater effects.

For the bystander effect – where cells not directly irradiated are still affected by the radiation – Kovalchuk is still working to discover why and how this phenomenon occurs. If a cancer patient receives radiation to one part of their body, Kovalchuk wants to know how many other body parts are affected and what can be done to prevent any harmful effects.

While performing her current research, Kovalchuk often thinks back to her days studying Chernobyl. What began as a nuclear accident in Chernobyl during her high school days in Ukraine sparked a lifelong dream that could benefit humankind in many positive ways. It’s a dream she doesn’t appear willing to give up. “What can we really do to prevent these effects from happening? We really need to understand if we can use it for our own benefit,” she says.

When asked about her reaction to being named as one of the Top 40 Under 40, she laughs. “I must have sounded somniferous to whoever told me,” says Dr. Kovalchuk. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. Then I realized, ‘Hey that’s actually true.’”

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