As It Happens·Q&A

This Ottawa PhD student creates viruses for the forces of good

Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw is hoping to change the narrative about viruses with her now award-winning research. 

Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw wins Indigenous innovation prize for her research into cancer-fighting viruses

Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw is a Métis medical student at the University of Ottawa and winner of a Mitacs prize for innovation. (David Datzkiw)

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Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw is hoping to change the narrative about viruses with her now award-winning research. 

The University of Ottawa MD-PhD student has been working to create viruses capable of helping to neutralize aggressive forms of breast and ovarian cancer. The research is still in its very early stages, far from human trials, but Jamieson-Datzkiw thinks it has the potential to one day become part of patients' care.

Now, her efforts have netted her the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — Indigenous. Mitacs is a Canadian non-profit that receives funding from the federal government, most provinces and Yukon to honour researchers from academic institutions.

"Being involved in your community is just such an important part of Indigenous culture," Jamieson-Datzkiw, who is Métis, said.

"The research that I do is very important and very relevant, but also I'm being recognized for being a mentor in the Indigenous community and I'm able to kind of stand up as a leader, and hopefully inspire younger people to get [interested in] science."

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Taylor, as you know, viruses don't exactly have a great reputation right now. So what made you think that you could actually use them to try to treat cancer?

You're absolutely right about that virus. It's getting a bit of a bad rep right now. But we've actually been working with a lot of different viruses to come up with therapy for cancers for many years now. 

The really cool thing about it is that they actually leave your healthy cells unharmed. [The virus] specifically hones into the cancer cells, because the cancer cells are not very good at fighting off viral infection.

Why don't they attack the healthy cells? 

More often than not, we're actually using viruses that ... can enter both healthy cells and cancer cells…. When cancer cells go through all of the genetic changes necessary to become cancer and to be able to grow very quickly, without the control that a healthy cell has, they kind of give up the ability to fight off viruses.

So the virus can enter a healthy cell and it can enter cancer cells. But when the healthy cell is infected ... it knows how to stop that infection. Those pathways are eliminated in cancer cells.

Jamieson-Datzkiw works to create new viruses that could one day help neutralize aggressive forms of breast and ovarian cancer. (Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw)

What do the virus cells do once they've entered the cancer cells?

Some of the cancer cells will die because there's so much viral replication happening that it ends up inherently killing the cancer cells. But then there's also other things that we can deliver within the virus. 

We can genetically manipulate the virus to deliver other things to the cancer cells, so we can either deliver different types of proteins and things that will make a cancer cell die. The viruses that I actually use are manipulating the cancer cell at a genetic level to sensitize them to drug treatments. So, we're targeting a certain gene within the cancer cell and knocking it down to make it more sensitive to drug treatment.

You've looked at this way of using the viruses to help treat aggressive breast and ovarian cancers, in particular. How successful have you been? What are your results so far?

I'm only a couple of years into my PhD, so things are still pretty early. I'm working with cells and different kinds of tumour models, hopefully moving on to mice quite shortly to make sure that things are safe and working in mice. It's a pretty long road to reach human trials. But if I'm able to show that things are working really well in mice, then at least we have some hope that it can go a bit further.

I think that viruses can have the potential to become a standard of care. It's just going to take time to work out all of the kinks.​​​​— Taylor Jaimeson-Datzkiw, University of Ottawa 

Is this [going to be a] front-line treatment or something when you've exhausted all of the possibilities?

So far, viruses are not what you would call a standard of care. So they're not like the first type of treatment that you would give a patient when they need some type of cancer therapeutic. 

I think it's just because they're so new. It takes a very, very long time to develop a therapy, to make sure that it's working, to make sure that it's safe, all of those things.

In my personal opinion, I think that viruses can have the potential to become a standard of care. It's just going to take time to work out all of the kinks. But at this moment, there's a lot of viruses that are in clinical trials, and people who have exhausted other options are turning to viruses. 

Do you think that in becoming standard of care, one other barrier is the attitude people might have? Like, "You're not going to put a virus into me. That's not going to work." Do you think that you'll meet resistance at that level? 

I think there is definitely a potential for resistance, and it's not helping that we're currently in a pandemic that's caused by a virus right now.

But I think that if we're able to show, in these clinical studies, that the virus really is safe and we're able to have conversations like this, where scientists are able to kind of talk to the community and say, "Hey, this is why the virus is safe for your healthy cells, and why it's going to harm your cancer cells," and just really try to educate people on what their treatment is, [we can] let them make that decision.


Written by Sheena Goodyear and Mehek Mazhar with files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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