Scientists Drs. Igor and Olga Kovalchuk came to Lethbridge knowing next-to-nothing about the city. Now, eight years later, they’ve happily set down roots and are pushing the U of L’s epigenetics research program into the limelight.
When the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant caught fire in 1986, a plume of radioactive particles descended over Ukraine. While only two people initially died from the explosion, many thousands have since become ill from the resulting radiation.
“When it happened, it was a major disaster for the whole country. It was the biggest disaster, impacting millions of people. Everyone in the medical industry got very interested in how they could help,” says Dr. Olga Kovalchuk, who grew up in Ukraine and did her undergraduate degree at Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University  (IFNMU), just 600 km from the site of the nuclear blast.
Not surprisingly, the radiation-cancer connection was a big focus at IFNMU. Several of her professors were collaborating on a tool that could detect radiation levels quickly and efficiently, to prevent people from unknowingly exposing themselves to harm. “The problem with radioactive contamination is that you don’t feel it – it’s not hot, not cold, you don’t see it and it doesn’t hurt,” says Olga.
While radiation wreaks havoc on DNA, creating harmful mutations that can lead to cancer, genetics itself fails to fully explain how cancer manifests. But another phenomenon, which also works on multiple levels in the cell, is helping fill in the gaps.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are expressed or “turned on” by environmental factors. “People say that if genetics is the alphabet of life, epigenetics is the grammar,” explains Olga, whose research focuses on the epigenetics of cancer.
Since 2001, Olga has pursued her research at the University of Lethbridge, just across the hall from her husband Igor, whom she met at IFNMU. While both work within the realm of epigenetics, Igor focuses on DNA repair in plants. For him, plants offer an excellent platform for study because, unlike animals, they can adapt to changes in their environment within a single generation.
“They’re a better organism to study the flexibility of epigenetic changes, especially for understanding the role epigenetics plays in evolution and adaptation,” he explains.
While epigenetics isn’t a household word, the field isn’t brand new, either. When Watson and Crick published their findings about DNA in 1953, proving a genetic component of heredity at long last, most clambered onto the genetics bandwagon. But a tiny minority realized that genetics didn’t explain all the mysteries of life.
However, it wasn’t until the early ’70s that the majority of scientists began to seriously consider that the responses of plants to stress couldn’t be explained entirely with DNA. Slowly, ideas like gene silencing came to the fore, and in the last 10 years, epigenetics has emerged as a strong discipline.
Recognizing the importance of epigenetics to many fields, the Kovalchuks have helped lead a charge for an epigenetics research institute at the U of L. In June 2009, the University received $3.2 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation  (CFI) to build the equipment core for the Southern Alberta Group for Epigenetics Studies (SAGES). This fall, this funding was matched by the province, providing U of L neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sutherland and collaborating researchers with more than $2.8 million for research related to epigenetics. The combined funding provides a solid foundation for the future creation of the Alberta Institute for Epigenetics, which will harness the prowess of U of L researchers, including the Kovalchuks, who both hold
U of L Board of Governors Research Chairs. Olga also holds a Canadian Institute of Health Research  (CIHR) Chair in Gender, Sex and Health.
The pair says the institute will be the first of its kind in Alberta and, to their knowledge, the only one in Canada. At the moment, there are few labs that even have the basic technology needed to conduct this kind of research. In fact, both Igor and Olga often send samples to American and European labs for analysis.
“We thought some kind of unifying scheme would get the tools that are needed, bring the people together who share an understanding and interest, allowing us to be really efficient, share tools and knowledge, and start growing together,” says Olga.
The institute will focus on six overlapping research areas: epi-cancer, epi-neuroscience, epi-plant, epi-cell, epi-toxicology and epi-technology. These areas have been chosen according to existing expertise at the University and the likelihood of current international collaborators relocating to Lethbridge, explains Igor.
While epigenetics sounds abstract, the outcomes have direct relevance to our everyday lives, according to Olga. In terms of health issues, epigenetics is helping scientists understand how diseases of all kinds – not just cancer – occur. It also offers new ways of analyzing experimental therapies and may yield information on how people can prevent disease. Unlike genetic changes which are rather rare, epigenetic changes happen constantly. Knowing which external factors can trigger expressions of genes in DNA will help people make healthier decisions to lower risks of developing certain health issues.
Epigenetics also has direct relevance to southern Alberta and the agriculture industry. For instance, the field offers new ways to improve the quality and quantity of agricultural products without any genetic modifications. This could have a tremendous impact on Canadian agriculture.
As the scientific visionaries for the institute, the Kovalchuk duo is confident it will attract researchers from around the globe.
“Basically, it will allow people to see that there is a dedicated research centre here with a group that studies approaches to stress tolerance, evolution, genome stability, creating more and better food, making people healthier – you name it. It will basically work as a centre that attracts like-minded people to do research here,” says Igor.
It is hoped that a physical building will eventually provide space for associates to collaborate directly, but for now, the institute will be established in the lab space the Kovalchuks currently use.
In time, Igor hopes to establish a tech-transfer wing for the institute that will focus on commercializing discoveries that emerge.
“It will help show people that we’re not only satisfying our curiosity – we’re actually doing research for the public.”
The institute is a coup for the U of L and the city of Lethbridge, say the Kovalchuks. It is also a tremendous development in the evolution of the couple’s careers. The institute will allow greater collaboration and technology, and inject a new sense of possibility.
“We are creating something that’s really new. And when you’re working in a new area, it’s very exciting – you’re exploring new avenues. That in itself is pretty motivating,” says Olga.
For Igor, who compares research to gambling, the new institute offers new tools that level the playing field for epigenetics.
“Scientists are healthy gamblers. What drives most of us is this curiosity and hope for a rare reward. Designing an experiment in such a way that you can finally get an answer is the best reward you can get.”