Serendipitous Science

    Four unexpected research discoveries

    January 24, 2011

    It’s often the case that research ostensibly undertaken to investigate one area of interest can yield unexpected results in another. That’s why researchers always keep an open mind to the possibility that what they set out to investigate can lead to further discoveries. Here are four U of A research avenues that led to more than what was initially anticipated.

    Nat Kav Who? Nat Kav, plant biochemist and biotechnologist (and his research team)

    Where? Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences

    What Were They Looking For? Kav and his research team were investigating the novel idea of introducing an antibody gene into canola plants to see what affect it would have on Sclerotonia stem rot, a fungal disease that attacks the stem of the canola plant and has the third highest deleterious impact on Alberta canola growers. They didn’t know what to expect since this technique is typically used only to combat viral diseases and not fungal diseases.

    What They Found? Not only were they surprised that the antibody gene seems to work in test trials against the onset of Sclerotonia stem rot, but they were even more surprised when it also showed great promise in tackling two other pernicious fungal diseases that afflict canola: blackleg disease — the second-most significant disease affecting Alberta canola producers — and Clubroot, the single-most feared disease.

    What Does The Future Hold? If the antibody gene Kav introduced works so well in preventing stem rot in canola plants, whose to say it won’t work to protect some of the 400 other plant species — such as carrots, oats, corn, sweet peas, broccoli and cauliflower — that are susceptible to the disease?

    The economic benefit to Canadian agriculture could be staggering. Canada is the world’s top exporter of canola and the industry annually generates $13.8 billion of economic activity, $12 billion of which is in western Canada.

    “You need at least two or three growing seasons to have robust data and do it at multiple sites,” says Kav, which explains why any commercial product developed from his findings is years away. “But you never know what’s going to happen in another plant species until you do it. Nature is full of surprises.”

    For more ALES-related research go to www.ales.ualberta.ca/afns.

    Who? Evangelos Michelakis, professor of medicine (and his research team)

    Evangelos MichelakisWhere? Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

    What Were They Looking For? Michelakis — named the November 2010 Researcher of the Month by Canadians for Health Research — was looking for a new approach to the treatment of cancer but had no idea that using DCA (Dichloroacetic acid) in his study would prove so promising. Scientists and doctors have used DCA for decades to treat children with inborn errors of metabolism due to mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria — the energy-producing units in cells — have been connected with cancer since the 1930s, but, until recently, researchers believed that cancer-affected mitochondria are permanently damaged and that this damage is the result, not the cause, of the cancer.

    What They Found? Michelakis — whose specialization is actually in cardiology — began using DCA for the successful treatment of pulmonary hypertension. Like cancer, pulmonary hypertension is caused by the uncontrolled proliferation of cells. When it was discovered that DCA was useful in reviving the cancer-affected mitochondria in pulmonary hypertension patients, Michelakis thought to try it with cancer patients. The results astounded him. The research team found that the normalization of mitochondrial function resulted in a significant decrease in tumour growth.

    What Does The Future Hold? “This work is one of the first studies in humans to support the emerging idea of altering the metabolism of tumours as a new direction for the treatment of cancer,” Michelakis says. “One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer, because all forms of cancer suppress mitochondrial function.”

    The DCA compound is not patented or owned by any pharmaceutical company and, therefore, would likely be an inexpensive drug to administer. However, since DCA can’t be patented, Michelakis is concerned that it may be difficult to find funding from private investors to test DCA in clinical trials.

    If you'd like to discuss funding for DCA research contact Holli Bjerland at holli.bjerland@ualberta.ca or 780-407-6524. For more information on DCA research go to www.dca.med. ualberta.ca.

    Who? Darlene Bouvier, ’91 BA, ’09 BA(NA)

    Darlene BouvierWhere? Faculty of Native Studies

    What Was She Looking For? Bouvier was looking to trace her own family roots for an honours research project to earn her native studies degree. “I thought I wrote this just to fulfill a requirement for my degree,” says Bouvier. “But it turned out to be much more.”

    What She Found? What began as a personal quest fuelled by pride in her heritage has since turned into a legacy document that is not only helping Bouvier’s family claim their identities as Métis people, but is helping complete strangers as well. The family “tree” Bouvier thought she was creating turned into what she calls a “large bush that extended from southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the Northwest Territories. The biggest surprise for me was the extent of the connection. I didn’t know the Bouviers in Manitoba or the Northwest Territories were related.” These people to whom she is only tangentially related found their own sense of deep-rooted belonging through her research. “It brought such joy to everybody,” she says.

    Bouvier also uncovered her own family’s until-then unknown ties to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the tiny Saskatchewan community of Ile à la Crosse, where her paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Bouvier, worked for the post beginning in 1804. Bouvier discovered that four generations of Bouvier men worked for the HBC as voyageurs, fishermen and general labourers, while the women maintained the post compound even as they kept their own gardens, crops and families.

    What Does The Future Hold? The gene­alogical report of the Bouvier family — dating back to the late 1700s — provides her family and other people in northwestern Saskatchewan with evidence they might be able to use to prove eligibility for Métis membership cards. Member­ship would entitle them to Aboriginal harvesting rights such as hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering on the land they’ve occupied for over 200 years.

    Go to www.ualberta.ca/nativestudies for more Native Studies research and publications.

    Marek Michalak Who? Marek Michalak, vice-dean/research and biochemistry professor (and an international team of medical researchers)

    Where? Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

    What Were They Looking For? They were researching a specific type of gene that is responsible for the protein folding ability in cells. Depending on the protein and their purpose in a cell, they “fold” themselves into certain shapes to perform their function, assembling themselves based on the instructions they get from genes in the cell. But if protein-folding functions in cells don’t work properly, it can lead to a host of diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

    What They Found? They wanted to see what would happen if they removed a specific chaperone — a protein used in the cell-folding process — called calnexin. In doing so, they inadvertently created a neurological disease in their experimental models. The laboratory models had numerous mobility issues and the speed of messages being relayed in the nervous systems of the test subjects were delayed as well. The symptoms displayed were very similar to the symptoms seen in people with myelin impairment diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. “This was a totally unexpected result,” says Michalak, “and an excellent example of how curiosity-driven research contributes to our understanding of human diseases.”

    What Does The Future Hold? “It was a surprise,” says PhD student Allison Kraus, about the research findings that she and Michalak came up with. “We never expected to find out what we did. Then we needed to expand our study, and that’s when it became a bigger and more collaborative effort with numerous researchers around the globe becoming involved.”

    Michalak and Kraus say their findings provide a step forward in understanding the complexity of neurological diseases that may one day lead to the development of better treatments. The next step for researchers is to study DNA from people with certain neurological diseases to see if this gene contains mutations that could contribute to their disease.

    Go to www.biochem.ualberta.ca for more research news.