Alberta’s two university-affiliated cancer research institutes have inspiring new leaders in place. The two have much in common beyond the fact they are both well-respected scientists.
Dr. Jennifer Chan took over as director of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the University of Calgary in January 2021, after seven years as deputy director. Dr. Hanne Ostergaard became director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA) at the University of Alberta a few months later, on June 1.
Both were born in southern California. Both are the children of immigrants. As young American researchers, both were recruited to Alberta universities, along with their scientist-husbands. Both have had successful research careers, with support from major funding agencies. And, most importantly, both are passionate about cancer research.
With their new leadership positions at CRINA and the Arnie Charbonneau, Ostergaard and Chan are excited about the potential for greater collaboration between researchers at both universities and the cancer centres in the two cities — and between the two institutes themselves. CRINA has 137 research members and the Arnie Charbonneau has 152.
3 Questions with Hanne Ostergaard
Where do you get your best ideas?
In the shower or in discussions with my husband (also an immunologist).
If you weren’t in your current job/profession, what would you be?
A car mechanic.
What do you do to recharge?
Going for a drive (I like cars), working in the garden or doing projects around the house.
“By helping people collaborate more,” says Ostergaard, “it makes it easier to take a basic, fundamental discovery and translate it into better detection, treatment or behavioural changes.”
Ostergaard is an immunologist and professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, where she teaches a course in the immunology and infection program. From 2012 to 2020, she was associate dean of research for graduate programs in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. Her CV proudly lists dozens of graduate students she has supervised who have gone on to stellar careers.
Ostergaard joined the University of Alberta in 1991 after completing postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, Calif., and her PhD in immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She and her husband, Kevin Kane, also an immunologist, weighed several job offers, including one from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
They chose the University of Alberta because the immunology department was so strong and funding from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research allowed them to immediately set up their labs.
Growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, Ostergaard was drawn to science because she liked figuring out how things work. Her father, a steamfitter, taught his children how to fix things around the house. Her Danish parents also introduced her to Lego, which she credits for piquing her interest in taking things apart and rebuilding them.
She discovered that same passion in her university’s biology department, which specialized in cell and molecular biology. She loved trying to understand how cells work — and that has been the foundation of her cancer research in the decades since.
“My research is very basic and fundamental but has been connected to cancer my entire career, starting as a graduate student. I feel a personal connection to cancer research,” says Ostergaard, who watched her grandmother, her aunt and a close friend all battle the disease.
Her lab focuses on understanding how T lymphocytes (or T-cells) in the immune system recognize and respond to cancer cells, and why they sometimes suppress tumour growth. Her research looks particularly at CD8 T-cells, how they function and migrate and suppress tumour growth and how they could be manipulated to become better cancer cell-killers.
“The hope is that, if we know how they work, we could eventually interfere with them to either enhance those responses or we could promote better cancer cell-killing activity,” she explains.
Ostergaard’s research has been funded by a number of agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Cancer Society. Her work has become even more vital with advances in checkpoint inhibitor therapy, a drug treatment that releases the natural brakes in the immune system so that T-cells can recognize and attack tumours.
Looking ahead a decade, Ostergaard doesn’t know if she will still be in the lab, but she hopes “the knowledge we’ve gained will contribute to people using new therapies to treat cancer, or at least inform their decisions on how best to treat cancer.”
3 Questions with Jennifer Chan
Where do you get your best ideas?
They come in the middle of the night. Sometimes I wake up and think, “We need to do this experiment.”
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be?
My super-secret desire is that I would love to be a trapeze artist. I do trapeze in the summer at a rig in Calgary.
What do you do to recharge?
I exercise, go to the gym and take motorcycle rides in the mountains. I also like to read comics. I’m a very simple person.
In Calgary, Chan hopes the research she is doing on brain tumour biology will also someday lead to clinicians and patients being able to make more informed decisions about therapy. Her lab studies two types of brain tumours — glioblastoma and oligodendroglioma — that are aggressive, invasive and hard to treat.
Chan is a clinician-scientist who followed her parents into medicine, but took a different path. Her parents were patient-focused physicians — her dad an OB-GYN and her mom a pediatrician — but Chan was more interested in the mechanisms of disease and unravelling important health problems through science.
After growing up in central California (her parents were immigrants from Singapore), she did her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and got her MD from Montreal’s McGill University.
After graduation, she did clinical training, a research fellowship and neuropathology work at several Harvard affiliated institutions. But, by 2008, when she and her husband, a stroke neurologist, were looking to set up their own labs, the U.S. economic meltdown had begun and academic funding was drying up. They looked north, because her husband — Dr. Eric Smith — is Canadian and they had spotted ads for two good academic jobs — one in neuropathology and one in neurology — at the University of Calgary.
“Lots of things had always resonated with me in terms of social values in Canada,” says Chan. “I value the healthcare system and the education system. I was somewhat privileged in the States, but you see the disparities on a daily basis.” The couple joined the University of Calgary in 2008.
Chan’s research lab in the Charbonneau uses tools such as genetic engineering to create models of brain tumours to study the interaction between cells. She is currently studying how immune cells in a tumour interact with cancer cells to either drive or sustain tumour growth, especially in tumours that are resistant to treatment.
Chan also describes herself as a “passionate biobanker.” She heads the Clark H. Smith Tumour Biobank, a biorepository that stores patient tumours, tissues and blood samples.
Chan herself benefits from the bank; she uses patient samples from the biorepository to create cell lines or xenografts to be implanted into mice to create living tumour models for her research. But her ultimate goal is to build the repository so researchers around the world can benefit from patients’ donations of their samples. “That is my contribution back to the research community,” she says.
Chan’s research is funded by CIHR, the Terry Fox Research Institute and the Alberta Cancer Foundation, among others.
Between her modelling research, biobanking and clinical practice, Chan works long hours, often starting her first meeting at 6 a.m. and winding up evening meetings at 9 p.m. (after a break to make dinner for her husband and two teenagers or drive to various extracurriculars). Ostergaard, too, works long hours, between her research, teaching and administrative duties at CRINA. But she tries to get home to relax in the evenings with her husband and their two Belgian shepherds.
The two directors are looking forward to getting to know each other better (beyond Zoom meetings) and working collaboratively to forge new relationships with the province’s cancer centres. It’s an especially exciting time for Chan, who will have a front-row seat when the new Calgary Cancer Centre opens in 2023.
“There aren’t many times in anyone’s lifetime that you get to be part of something new, ambitious, meaningful and lasting,” says Chan. “Even aside from the building, we’re forging new relationships between the university and Alberta Health Services. If we do it correctly now, this is going to set the stage for success for decades to come.”