In 1982, the first ever vaccine was created to prevent a pervasive form of cancer caused by the hepatitis B virus. But despite this medical breakthrough, approximately 600,000 people die from hepatitis B-related health complications each year.
This troubling statistic had U of A student Connie Le determined to put this medical phenomenon under the microscope — a research pursuit made possible by her selection as a Vanier Scholar, a designation that will provide her project with $150,000 over three years.
Once she completes the first two years of her medical degree, Le will diligently pursue her research, which will attempt to develop a short-term therapy to treat those infected with hepatitis B. She also hopes to provide relief for the 240 million people infected with the virus by finding an effective cure for the disease.
“Essentially the idea is to still administer the current therapy for hepatitis B to patients, but in combination with what my research will hopefully come to fruition with — something else that would also attack that DNA portion,” she said.
“If that’s the case, that would essentially be a cure for hepatitis B.”
According to the World Health Organization, hepatitis B is most commonly contracted through sexual transmission, contaminated needles and from mother to child during birth. Although hepatitis B is common throughout the world, especially in sub-Sahara Africa and East Asia, Le said it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. The current long-term therapy is both expensive and physically uncomfortable, restricting access to those from low-income backgrounds, she explained.
“It’s quite prevalent worldwide. It’s one of those diseases that hasn’t gotten quite as much publicity as some of the other ones,” she said.
“On top of that, a lot of individuals have trouble going on the therapy. It’s not an incredibly comfortable therapy ... (and) it can be quite expensive. Being able to shorten that therapy and provide something to end the need for continued therapy could help the financial aspect of it.”
Le plans to accomplish this task by developing a method to attack and kill the viral DNA that’s associated with chronic hepatitis B infections. She will infect cells and animal models with the virus and then administer the corresponding therapies, making adjustments throughout the experiment when necessary, she explained.
This will be done by combining her prospective vaccine with the current treatment regimes used to manage hepatitis B.
This desire to transfer her research findings from the lab to the patient was incubated during her undergraduate studies at the U of A. As an ambitious student, Le conducted research in Toronto and attended a chemistry conference in Montreal, experiences that solidified both her desire to generate solutions to real-word problems and pursue research with passion and determination.
“I saw that there wasn’t as much translation from research at the bench top to the clinic. Even though there were these amazing discoveries that I could see could very well be used in a clinical setting, for whatever reason they weren’t quite reaching that stage. Then I got interested in how I could bridge that gap,” she said.
Her advice for prospective Vanier Scholars is simple: don’t confine yourself to one commitment, participate in activities you wholeheartedly enjoy and the benefits will come naturally.
“A lot of what the Vanier Scholarship is looking for is not only being good at the research and smart at what you do, but being well-rounded,” she said. “Do things you legitimately enjoy and then things will come from it.”
Ten researchers from the U of A were selected for the 2013 Vanier Canadian Graduate Scholarships.