A day in the life
Chris Richardson, professor and Canada Research Chair in Viral Vaccinology and Therapeutics
“I’m definitely curiosity driven. It can take years to make a discovery—my last took six years. But when you do, there’s euphoria. There’s also relief, because you know you’ll get a grant when the discovery is that big—you'll be able to keep all the people who helped you on the project employed.
The discovery of a lifetime
When you think of the time and labour involved in lab research, the words exciting and competitive might not spring to mind. But to Chris Richardson, professor in Dal’s Microbiology and Immunology Department and Canada Research Chair in Viral Vaccinology and Therapeutics, that’s precisely what research is.
And one Sunday afternoon, his dedication to hours at the research bench paid off. “We discovered that a cell surface protein called PVRL4/Nectin 4 functions as a receptor for measles virus in epithelial and adenocarcinoma tumor cells,” he explains. “So we’re now trying to design a therapeutic cancer vaccine using an attenuated, or crippled, form of the virus. It won’t give you measles, but it would attack cells in tumours that can occur in the lungs, breasts, bladder, prostate gland, and pancreas.”
In fact, the thrill of such discoveries often goes hand in hand with an element of competition. Dr. Richardson and his team “were neck and neck with the Mayo Clinic” in discovering the PVRL4/Nectin 4 protein.
“When we announced the discovery during a mini-symposium at the Mayo Clinic,” Dr. Richardson says, smiling, “people in the audience were dead quiet because they’d all been looking for the receptor, too. I was nervous and my hands were shaking. Then a guy jumped out of the crowd to grab the microphone away from me and say, ‘We discovered it too!’ That human factor is part of what makes science exciting.”
He’s also deeply involved in researching hepatitis B and C. “Hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer,” Dr. Richardson says. “We’re working with mouse models for hepatitis C, trying to find factors that make the virus human and liver specific, and what proteins can trigger or enhance the immune system.”
Drugs that effectively treat hepatitis have recently been developed, he notes, but they’re very expensive. “So we’re looking at traditional natural product drugs that can help combat liver disease, like green tea extract and tannins from black tea, because they’re cheaper and they do work.”
Despite all the excitement, Dr. Richardson concedes that a researcher’s life isn’t always easy: “I deliberately didn’t get married until late in life because of the long hours. But visiting my wife’s family in Taiwan brings back the relevance of what I do. Much of the community is hepatitis B positive. Hepatitis," he adds, "is quite prevalent throughout Taiwan and China."
For Dr. Richardson, the trade-offs are worth it. “I wouldn’t have done any other profession—I’m very happy, I wouldn’t change a thing."
Video: Dr. Chris Richardson talks about his cancer research
"...it's something we'll be following up on in clinical trials in the next couple of years."