Scientists honoured for study of cell death: Health research institute holds annual Gala for Research, award ceremony

November 12, 2005

By Dave Rogers
The Ottawa Citizen

One of the most organized events in the life of a brain cell may be its death, according to Dr. David Park, the latest recipient of the Ottawa Health Research Institute's Researcher of the Year Award.

Dr. Park will be honoured today, along with Dr. Benjamin Tsang, who will receive the Dr. J. David Grimes Research Career Achievement Award, at the institute's annual Gala for Research at the Westin Hotel this evening.

Dr. Park was one of the co-founders of the Parkinson's Research Consortium in 2003, a unique venture spearheaded by the Ottawa Health Research Institute, the research arm of the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Hospital. The consortium of 11 Ottawa scientists was established by Dr. David Grimes, a Parkinson's specialist, and Dr. Park, 39. Some have dubbed the pair "two Davids battling Goliath."

Dr. Park, who received his university education at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, and Columbia University in New York City, moved to Ottawa in 1998. "I came here because of the strength of science here in Ottawa," said Dr. Park, who was born in Seoul, but raised near Ann Arbor, Michigan. "There were people and things I wanted to work with here."

One of those people might well have been Dr. Tsang, 58, whose research examines cell death -- a process called apoptosis, which means programmed cell death or cell suicide -- in connection with ovarian cancer. Dr. Tsang has spent more than 30 years investigating the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate ovulation and fertility.

"We are also interested why patients taking chemotherapy for ovarian cancer at some point don't respond to treatment," Dr. Tsang said. "This has to do with the apoptosis or the regulation of cell death.

Meanwhile, Dr. Park's research has revealed that the death of brain cells is much like a choreographed dance, with specific molecules furthering the cells' demise. This process of apoptosis, or cell death, is one of the hottest topics in medical research.

Dr. Park says neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases are caused by inappropriate brain cell suicide.

While medical researchers don't know what causes Parkinson's disease, Dr. Park suspects that it can be triggered by genetic predisposition and environmental factors, such as pesticides or air pollution. "Some people think it is triggered by certain forms of pesticides, but not everyone who is exposed to pesticides gets the disease," he said yesterday. "Maybe it is an interaction between certain predisposition, but no one knows."

The disease, which affects about 100,000 Canadians, results from the degeneration of neurons in a region of the brain that controls movement. The breakdown creates a shortage of the brain-signalling chemical dopamine and causes involuntary movement. Sometimes victims can't move when they want, and other times they move involuntarily.

It is a progressive disease that affects people at different rates. Medication can manage the symptoms, but it doesn't halt the course of the disease or cure it. The disease doesn't kill people, but it reduces life expectancy and decreases the ability to function independently.

For his part, Dr. Tsang said a better understanding of why ovarian cancer cells do not die may allow researchers to develop strategies allowing them to make the cells responsive to chemotherapy.

"In the menstrual cycle, the follicle that contains the egg grows and ovulates at mid-cycle. But in the case of cancer, these cells lose their ability to die, even in the the presence of a chemotherapy agent. We think there are a couple of families of genes that prevent these cells from dying."

A native of Hong Kong, Dr. Tsang is a graduate of Bemidji State University in Minnesota, the University of Iowa and the University of Ottawa. He has also worked at the National Research Council.

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation's annual gala is expected to raise about $150,000 for the Ottawa Health Research Institute.

Eric and Vizma Sprott, two Toronto philanthropists, have donated $2 million for stem cell research at the Ottawa Health Research Institute. Stem cell therapy may eventually help patients regenerate their own tissue and organs. It could be used to treat diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, retinal degeneration, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy and blood disorders.

Note: Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.