Kovalchuk, Kolb team up for CIHR project

Two University of Lethbridge researchers are teaming up to better understand unintended side effects associated with radiation treatment of cancer cells and the difference between female and male patients.

Dr. Bryan Kolb, a neuroscience researcher at the U of L's Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN) and Dr. Olga Kovalchuk, a biological sciences researcher who specializes in researching the affects of radiation on cancer cells and nearby cells, are collectively putting their lab teams on the project, which is being funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Drs. Bryan Kolb, left, and Olga Kovalchuk,

Over the next five years, the research team will receive more than $930,000.

The studies, which may lead to the development of male or female-specific treatments that improve the quality of life for all cancer patients, is attempting to solve problems yet to be fully explored - why does radiation delivered in one part of your body to help eliminate cancer cells affect your memory, balance and other behaviours normally managed by your brain - and are those effects different in men and women?

"There's a phenomenon we've heard about called 'radio brain,' where people who receive radiation therapy treatment talk about having memory loss or other side effects, including balance issues, concentration issues and other deficits," says Kolb.

"Chemotherapy side effects are more well known, and occur in about 50 per cent of the population receiving chemotherapy treatments. However, virtually nothing is known about radiation effects, and even less is known about the gender differences."

Cancer patients have been receiving radiation therapy for more than a century but this is the first time that a gender-specific approach has been taken to see how radiation therapies affect the male and female brain.

Kolb adds that it is commonly thought that shielding the area which is not supposed to be affected by radiation was enough to prevent it from affecting non-cancerous areas.

"Because we have heard about the reported changes to the brain and behaviour following radiation therapy, we know that something is changing to affect the brain, even with steps taken to prevent radiation 'spillover', but we don't know exactly how it becomes affected."

Dr. Olga Kovalchuk has been studying the effects of radiation on plants, animals and people for decades, and has developed a number of recommendations based on her work in Ukraine near Chernobyl, the largest nuclear disaster in history.

"We know that in radiation-induced cancers, there are proven differences between how men and women are affected," says Kovalchuk. "With Dr. Kolb's expertise in how the brain responds to various illnesses and treatments, and how gender specific behaviour is determined by the brain, I'm excited about what we might uncover working together on this unique project."

Kolb and Kovalchuk have also enlisted two Alberta Health Services medical physicists working at the Jack Ady Cancer Centre (JACC) at the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge – Dr. Charles Kirkby and Dr. Esmaeel Ghasroddashti.

Kirkby and Ghasroddashti are responsible for making sure the radiation doses are proportionately measured and that the results are comparable to a human dosage of cancer treatment.

"Their co-operation has been central to our ability to make this project work," says Kovalchuk. "We would not be able to do this without them, and to have them in the community and as research partners is a huge benefit."

Kovalchuk also acknowledges the novel nature of the work, but stresses that it will be very relevant in the future.

"This will be the first large-scale animal model study, with a gender specific focus," she says. "While this project involves rats, we are always thinking about how our research can be moved forward to help people. The data we get here could be used in future studies. This is just the beginning of this process, and because so little is known about it, we have to start somewhere."

Kovalchuk is also the recent recipient of a new CIHR Chair award in Gender, Work and Health. Her research project is dedicated to examining whether men and women are affected differently in nuclear work environments, which includes the nuclear power industry, healthcare and research departments.

CIHR is the Government of Canada's health research investment agency. CIHR's mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to enable its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health-care system.