From Poultry Handler to Cancer Research

    A Cross Cancer Institute researcher says his rural background led to a life-changing opportunity working with Lorne Tyrrell

    By Tina Faiz on August 8, 2014

    Growing up on a farm outside Grande Prairie, Alta., John Mackey, ’90 MD, always knew he wanted to be a physician. By age 19, he had been accepted to the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and was offered a lab position with internationally renowned researcher Lorne Tyrrell, ’64 BSc, ’68 MD.

    “At the time, I thought I must have impressed him with my intelligence,” remembers Mackey, now a professor and oncologist. “But I think what actually happened is he realized I was a farm boy. Since he was working with a duck model of hepatitis B, I think he simply figured, ‘Here’s a guy who can handle poultry!’ ”

    And handle poultry he did.

    Mackey dutifully worked with scores of ducks to test various potential hepatitis B treatments (one of which was, ultimately, successful). Between visits with the poultry, he’d go back to Tyrrell’s biochemistry lab to run experiments on the drugs and viruses being tested.

    “I found I really enjoyed the lab aspect,” says Mackey. “Even though it wasn’t my original plan, I knew that I wanted to get into medical research instead of setting up a family practice.”

    Today, Mackey is director of clinical trials at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, a professor of oncology in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and a medical oncologist who treats breast cancer patients.

    His work straddles two worlds: one of real patients coping with real problems and one of theoretical “discovery science.” Just like his mentor, Lorne Tyrrell.

    “Here is Lorne: a wonderful doctor — kind, compassionate, knows and understands his patients,” says Mackey. “But then he comes back to the lab and has these fascinating interactions with discovery scientists, designing experiments ... to help the patients he’s seeing in the clinic.”

    Tyrrell’s research led to the first drug treatment for hepatitis B, now used globally. “He has made a huge difference,” Mackey says, “and his work helped me imagine applying what I saw and learned in his lab and clinic to other problems.”

    For Mackey, that problem is cancer. He oversees 600 clinical trial patients a year at the Cross Cancer Institute. That’s 12 per cent of all patients coming through the door, he says, noting it’s triple the national average.

    Mackey’s latest clinical trial used DNA testing to determine chemotherapy dosages for breast cancer patients. Every person metabolizes medication at a different rate so, in the past, people with fast metabolisms were not receiving enough chemotherapy to cure their cancers. Mackey is studying the effects of giving fast-metabolizing patients a higher dose.

    This kind of “pharmacogenomics,” or personalized medicine, is offering new hope and real results in treating cancer.

    “If we define a new treatment that can help a particular cancer problem, we might be helping 60,000 patients globally,” says Mackey. “That makes it exciting to get up and go to work every day.”