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By Stephanie Cesca and Paul-Mark Rendon
Understanding how a tadpole turns into a frog may be the key to understanding how to fight certain illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease according to a University of Victoria researcher.
Caren Helbing, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the university, is hoping to learn how and why a cell makes its life decisions.
"We're using the metamorphosis of a tadpole for a model to study how cells make decisions whether to live or die or how to divide," she said.
A tadpole's cell is triggered and changed by a single stimulus, the thyroid hormone, which is also present in human beings. "[Tadpoles] access the trigger it's the on switch," she said. "So what we're studying is how the cells know what to do when the thyroid hormone pulls the trigger."
The research, she said, could be a new development in cancer research, as cancer cells are the result of faulty decision-making. "They've forgotten how to die." In the case of Alzheimer's disease, she added, the cell dies prematurely.
Helbing said imposing a timetable on this kind of research is very difficult to do and has no idea when she might conclude her findings. "This focus and basis of research will go on for a while."
"Essentially all clinical care depends on research," said Libby Brown, media relations for the British Columbia Cancer Agency.
"I think in particular it's important in regards to cancer because there's a lot about cancer we can't understand." Brown explained 25 years ago, 20 per cent of people diagnosed survived. Today this number has skyrocketed to a 50 per cent survival rate.
Although drugs and radiotherapy are essential in curing cancer, Brown said understanding how the disease begins is the next step. "We're only at the very, very early stages."
Burr Atkinson, a zoology professor at Western, said he was familiar with Helbing's work, as she was a PhD student of his when she graduated from Western in 1993.
Atkinson explained working on tadpole embryos was important because they were similar to fetuses. "Tadpoles have no maternal influence, so they are easier to control in laboratory setting," he said.
Debbie Altow, director of communications for the Canadian Cancer Society of British Columbia, said Helbing's work represented basic research integral to moving closer to a cure. "The Canadian Cancer Society really does spend the bulk of its money on a lot of research that's very basic. That means there is no immediate payoff and it's not commercially viable," she said.