OVC Graduate Student Advancing Knowledge In Gene Therapy


September 20, 2021


Graduate students at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) are exploring, studying and advancing knowledge in One Health, veterinary and human health-related sciences.

Across OVC’s four academic departments, these students are exploring translational and comparative research in fields including cancer, cardiovascular disease and neuroscience, infectious diseases and immunology, epidemiology and public health, animal health management and welfare, antimicrobial resistance and stewardship, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, and reproductive biology.

As we begin a new academic year, we’re highlighting graduate student work at OVC. Read on to learn more.

Brenna Stevens, PhD student, OVC Department of Pathobiology

How did you find out about Pathobiology graduate programs and what made you want to complete your MSc and begin your PhD at the OVC?

During my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I had the opportunity to work as a summer student in Dr. Sarah Wootton’s lab. I met a lot of graduate students from Pathobiology and learned about the different programs. What really made me want to pursue graduate studies at OVC was how collaborative the environment is. Everyone supports each other whether it’s sharing resources, equipment, or just advice. It really makes the department feel like one big team.

What is the main focus of your research?

My research centers on using viruses as gene therapy vectors. The field of gene therapy has come so far, but still faces significant barriers. For example, some gene therapy vectors can only hold a small amount of DNA, which means they can only carry small genes. This means diseases that are caused by mutations in large genes cannot be treated. My project aims to solve some of these issues, with a focus on using gene therapy to treat cystic fibrosis.

What is cystic fibrosis and how could gene therapy be used in its treatment or prevention?

Cystic fibrosis is an incredibly common genetic disease. In Canada, it affects about 1 in 3,600 people. It is characterized by mucus build up in a patient’s lungs, causing bacterial lung infections and breathing difficulty. Since cystic fibrosis is caused by a mutation in a single gene, gene therapy can be used to treat it and could even prevent symptoms from ever developing.

In gene therapy, a virus would be used to deliver a correct copy of the mutated gene to a cystic fibrosis patient. Now with a correct copy of the gene, the mucus build-up should stop and disperse, and the patient’s breathing difficulties should subside or disappear altogether.

Why is there a need for this research?

Treatment for cystic fibrosis usually involves many long courses of antibiotics. With the rising prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, especially in cystic fibrosis patients, there’s a pressing demand for alternatives. Gene therapy could prevent the need for antibiotics in the first place. Also, current treatments for cystic fibrosis do not work for patients with certain unique mutations. Gene therapy should work for all patients, regardless of their genetic background.

Why is this research important to you? Why are you passionate about this field of study?

I think gene therapy is such an amazing field. It really gets to the cause of the disease, rather than just treating the symptoms. It’s also such a versatile tool; there are so many different applications for gene therapy. I feel so lucky that my research will contribute more to the field, and potentially help those suffering from cystic fibrosis and other genetic diseases.

How would you describe the benefits of your research?

This work can be applied to thousands of genetic diseases, not just cystic fibrosis. There are so many genetic diseases that are not as widely studied and do not have effective treatments. For people suffering with those diseases, gene therapy would be a game changer. It could prevent symptoms and hospitalizations, also lessening the burden on healthcare.

Who is your advisor(s) and who else is affiliated with your research?

My advisor is Dr. Sarah Wootton. We are also collaborating with Dr. Bernard Thébaud at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

Who are your current funders for this research?

My research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), an OVC PhD Scholarship, and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program.

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