Researcher in Focus: Lynne-Marie Postovit

The regular Fellow in Focus series is changing and will now sometimes include an up-and-coming Researcher in Focus.

Lynne-Marie Postovit is a cell biologist whose research focuses on how cancer cells are able to spread and resist therapy. Her work has the potential to lead to new cancer treatments and in fact has led to a therapy that is currently in clinical trials.

Dr. Postovit, assistant professor in anatomy and cell biology at the University of Western Ontario and a recipient of Canada’s Young Researcher Award, shared her research and volunteer experiences with the Council for this issue of E-News.

In her own words, she explains what her research entails:

“With few exceptions, every cell in one’s body has the same DNA code. Yet different cells express different genes and have very different functions. For example skin cells make keratin to protect the body and cells in the stomach make enzymes to help us digest food. This specification is dictated in the womb, during development, when signals in the environment of cells tell them how they need to behave. In diseases like cancer, this amazing process is undone, leading to cells that are no longer specified.  For example, breast cancer and melanoma cells can start to act like the cells that line blood vessels. These cells stop responding normally to the cues in their environment, and even send out signals that allow them to grow, spread and evade therapy. We use developmental models, like stems cells, to understand what normal environments look like during specification so that we can try to make cancer cells more normal and treatable. We also measure the factors that cancer cells deposit into the environment so that we can discover how they sustain an abnormal environment. By revealing these key proteins in the environment, we uncover potential new targets for the treatment of cancer.”

Beyond contributing to our knowledge of how cancer cells spread and how stem cells grow, Dr. Postovit hopes that her research can be used to create new therapies that save lives – an admittedly ambitious goal, but certainly an admirable one. She’s also in it for the thrill of discovery.

“I originally wanted to go to medical school, but changed my mind after completing my honour’s thesis, which examined how oxygen regulates how trophoblasts (the cells that form the placenta) can invade. I was attracted to the creative aspects of research; to being able to ask truly meaningful questions and then to be the first person to find the answers. It is a very privileged and exhilarating position!” said Dr. Postovit.

During her doctoral training with Dr. Charles Graham at Queen's University, Dr. Postovit discovered that supplying nitric oxide (NO) to cancer cells could block hypoxia-induced phenomena such as metastasis. These findings led to an ongoing clinical trial that is testing NO-releasing medications as a possible prostate cancer treatment. While completing her postdoctoral training with Dr. Mary Hendrix at Northwestern University, Dr. Postovit found that aggressive tumour cells secrete a stem cell protein called Nodal. Research demonstrated that exposing tumour cells to human embryonic stem cell microenvironments blocks the formation of melanoma and breast cancer tumours.

Dr. Postovit was recently featured in The Scientist magazine as a Scientist to Watch. She has doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and in 2003 received the Arthur W. Ham Graduate Student Award, given to the top Canadian graduate student at the Canadian Association for Anatomy, Neuroscience and Cell Biology.

Dr. Postovit is also a member of the Council’s Expert Panel on Women in University Research, just one of her volunteer endeavors, and one she ranks highly.

“This has been an amazing learning experience for me. By interacting with eminent scholars from disciplines as diverse as mathematics, English and business I have discovered new ways to think about how institutions and dogma can affect the trajectory of women. I have also met some truly inspirational people, who I hope to look to for advice and camaraderie as I move through my career.”

She sees tremendous value in the evidence-based assessments produced by the Council.

“The expert panel process, in my opinion, is valuable and illuminating. It brings together brilliant minds with divergent expertise and opinions. By capitalizing on the diversity of the panel, a more balanced assessment can be made.”

Dr. Postovit’s other memorable volunteer experiences include a speech she gave to a Shriner’s group who had raised money to give to the Cancer Research Society.

“I attended one of their meetings to accept their check and to say a few words. I was absolutely touched to see the faces of the people who had given up weekends to help fund research like my own and I felt privileged to talk about where their hard-earned donation would go.”

In addition to her research and other academic pursuits, Dr. Postovit keeps busy chasing after her one-year-old son, and heading her CBCF Run for the Cure Team, the Scientific Striders.

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