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Dr. X. Johné Liu
Winner of the Dr. Michel Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award (2009)
at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
When Johné Liu first considered a career as a scientist, he was primarily interested in learning how living things worked - specifically the mushrooms he was trying to grow as a high school science experiment in China. He never considered that one day he would be making ground-breaking discoveries in Canada with implications for cancer, stem cells and fertility.
He got where he is today through an interest in one of the most basic questions in cell biology, the question of how cells divide. While in most cases, cell division is quite straight forward - an equal split resulting in two identical cells - Dr. Liu was interested in a much more mysterious form of cell division called "asymmetric" cell division, which results in two cells that are very different in size and function. This happens in females, when a "pre-egg cell" divides to produce a large fertilizable egg, along with a tiny "polar body" whose sole function is to dispose of extra genetic material. It also happens when a stem cell divides to produce one identical daughter stem cell along with a more specialized cell, such as a brain cell, a kidney cell, or in some cases, a cancerous cell. Dr. Liu wanted to understand how this asymmetric cell division happens and how each cell knows what to become.
This year, he made a major breakthrough in the area, discovering that a protein called Cdc42 plays a master role in asymmetric cell division in frog eggs. He used frog eggs because they are large and easy to study, but he is now doing experiments to see if this protein plays a similar role in humans. If it does, the therapeutic implications could be immense. For example, if Cdc42 turns out to play an important role in human cancer stem cells, then blocking this protein might prevent cancer stem cell from dividing, and thus prevent cancer from coming back after treatment. Dr. Liu's research also has important implications for fertility, because problems with egg cell division are among the most common causes of infertility and birth defects. His work has received attention around the world and has been published in prestigious journals such as Developmental Cell.
Dr. Liu is a Senior Scientist in the Chronic Disease Program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), a Professor in the University of Ottawa's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and an Honorary Professor and in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (State Key Laboratory of Reproductive Biology). He has mentored nearly 50 student researchers and has published 39 original research papers.