University of Calgary

Dropping In

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 11/05/2016 - 12:50.

Dropping In

What is that pink image on the screen, those tubes of fruit flies, kids’ art work and cancer samples? Join us on a tour of a lab that is striving to advance cancer research.
By Jacquie Moore

Beautiful Minds
Clark H. Smith Brain Tumour Centre


Dr. Jennifer Chan doesn’t typically get to meet the people whose lives — and deaths — drive her work. Nonetheless, she’s deeply moved by their generosity, particularly as the contributions are invariably to help future individuals rather than to save their own lives.

Chan is a pathologist/clinician-scientist who oversees the Clark H. Smith Centre’s tissue bank. A bio-repository of 1,000 samples of human brain tumour, blood and spinal fluid, the bank is a rare and vital source of materials for labs striving to advance cancer research here and around the world. While most of the tissue comes from excess following surgical procedures (with patients’ consent), some come from autopsies, as well. It’s the latter donations that make Chan step back in awe.

“There are a couple of memorable cases where children have died of aggressive tumours for which there is limited knowledge and no effective treatment,” says Chan. “In their times of greatest sadness, these families have consented to donate their child’s tissue to research — during a precious window when their cells are very extremely useful. That’s the greatest gift. There’s no benefit to their child — it’s completely altruistic.”

Combined with philanthropic support that ensures expert research and discovery ensues, such gifts have infinite potential to benefit countless others.

Clark H. Smith was a beloved husband and father who passed away from a malignant brain tumour in 2001. His wife, Jane, and son, Tony, have since invested more than $5.2 million in philanthropic support for brain cancer research and education, beginning with establishing a centre in Clark’s name. The family’s subsequent targeted donations have created a program whose activities have flourished and whose potential for impact has attracted the talent to exceed beyond its initial scope.

These days, the tissue bank is established enough to draw in external funding. Most notably, an $8.2-million grant from the Terry Fox Research Institute currently supports a multi-institutional glioblastoma research project.

“That funding has allowed us to harness diverse expertise to create a screening and discovery project — but, without the samples and cells, there would be no project,” says Chan. It’s that synergy that has transformed the typical model of scientists working side by side in a lab to one where they work hand in hand. As Chan put it, the funding and priorities at the centre, “link us together and make us greater than the individual investigator.” A rare and crucial feat, indeed. U