Dr. Carolina Ilkow - New Assistant Professor in the BMI department
Dr. Carolina Ilkow joined our BMI department in July 2016. Her research is focused on oncolytic virus and the impact of the tumor microenvironment on the therapeutic outcome of viroimmunotherapy. She is also interested in learning how the metabolic diseases (such as obesity) or aging can affect the response to the virotherapy.
What is your background?
My research experience has been shaped by my graduate work at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Dr. Tom Hobman, where I identified novel interactions of pathogenic RNA viruses such as Rubella virus with their host cells. The knowledge gained from these studies further extends our understanding of how viruses manipulate host cell proteins to facilitate their replication, survival and persistent infection during pathogenesis. In order to expand my research experience repertoire, as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. John Bell lab, my research focus shifted to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how viruses can be used as targeted bio-weapons to treat cancer. These naturally occurring or engineer cancer-fighting viruses are known as oncolytic viruses. Using tumour samples derived from patients with cancer and models of pancreatic and ovarian cancers, I demonstrated for the first time that responses of cancer cells to oncolytic virus infection are not exclusively determined by their intrinsic characteristics, but are also controlled by signals derived from the tumour microenvironment.
Tell us about your research?
A tumour is more than a collection of cancer cells. The tumour microenvironment also contains cancer-associated fibroblasts, fat cells, immune cells and the extracellular matrix that binds them together. During my postdoctoral studies, I have begun to take a more comprehensive look at the tumour microenvironment and its impact on virotherapy through the investigation of cancer-associated fibroblasts and their role in oncolytic virus responses; however this still remains a reductionist approach. My research vision is to characterize intercellular signalling networks in the tumour environment and their impact on anti-cancer biotherapies. Also, due to the pivotal role of aging and metabolic disorders in the development of cancer, it would be of particular interest to reveal associations between aging, obesity, altered cellular environments and responses to virus-based therapies.
What are some applications of your work?
Understanding the intracellular crosstalk between the different cellular components in the tumour will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of how various cell types in the tumour microenvironment respond to oncolytic virus therapeutics, and yield novel targets to improve anticancer virotherapy. I am hopeful that our research will provide the knowledge and rational for the development of innovated and more effective anti-cancer biotherapies.
What got you interested in therapeutic viruses?
As I mentioned earlier, during my graduate studies I worked with pathogenic viruses, “the bad guys”, but I was always interested in directing my research towards the development of novel strategies to treat cancer. I lost my mom to cancer when I was eight years old and it was always in my grasp to “fight” against this devastating disease. So, when I read about using viruses to fight cancer I had no doubt that working on “therapeutic viruses” was the perfect carrier path to combine the skills I gained during my graduate studies and my research passion.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
I am originally from Argentina, and before moving to Canada to start my graduate studies I worked for two years in a community outreach project in the Amazon rainforest (between the borders of Argentina and Brazil). Among the most serious health problems that aboriginal tribes leaving in rainforest ecosystems have to confront, are parasitic diseases. This outreach project focused on identifying the most prevalent intestinal parasitic infections in the aboriginal communities (known as Mbya-Guarani tribes) of the southeast Amazon area. Our lab was setup in tent in the middle of the forest! I travelled to remote areas to collect samples and to teach the local communities about how parasites spread and how to prevent parasitic diseases. It was a very challenging but immeasurably rewarding experience for me. Beyond any personal gain, the involvement in this project has also inspired me to build an interactive, creative and patient approach when conducting and teaching science.