Dr Connie Eaves

BC Cancer Agency

Dr Connie Eaves
Tracking how stem cells grow

In some ways, treating cancer is like weeding your garden. To successfully stop the cancer for good, you need to destroy its roots.

The body contains many types of stem cells – “root” cells that give birth to all the specialized cell types in the body. For example, blood stem cells produce more than 10 different types of blood cells that we need to live. Cancers are also made up of a mixture of different cells, which affects how they behave and how they respond to treatment. Some cells act as cancer stem cells, which replenish tumours, allowing them to resist treatment and keep growing back.

Dr Connie Eaves, a distinguished scientist at the BC Cancer Agency and professor at the University of British Columbia, is an international leader in the field of stem cell research. She has made great strides in improving our understanding of how normal and cancer stem cells grow and work, particularly in the blood and breast.

In the 1980s, Dr Eaves co-founded the Terry Fox Laboratory in Vancouver with her husband, Dr Allen Eaves. There, the couple and their team first discovered that healthy blood stem cells could be kept alive and coaxed to grow in the lab, while blood cancer cells died off. This suggested that people with leukemia considering treatment with a bone marrow transplant might be able to use their own bone marrow – purged of cancer cells in the lab – instead of waiting to find a compatible donor.

Building on this research, Dr Connie Eaves is applying lessons learned from blood stem cells to understanding the earliest events in blood and breast cancer development. With the support of Canadian Cancer Society donors, Dr Eaves and her team recently developed a new way to track how breast cancers grow in mice by tagging the DNA of each cancer cell with a unique “barcode.” Using this technique, their research showed that breast cancers might grow faster than previously thought, challenging the belief that breast cancers develop very slowly. Excitement is growing around the idea that if the earliest changes can be identified, then more targeted treatments can be developed. “My very first grant ever – more than 40 years ago – was from the Canadian Cancer Society,” Dr Eaves comments. “I have always been inspired by their [CCS’] longstanding and unswerving commitment to every possible avenue of research and desire to support the best. I believe these principles have helped make Canada a global leader in cancer research. I, for sure, have been personally stimulated by them to always look for the new and challenging.”

Dr Eaves’ lifetime of achievements and research excellence continue to be recognized by several prestigious awards, including the Society’s Robert L. Noble Prize in 2003. We are proud to support her ongoing research on what happens to blood stem cells after cancer treatment. This work could identify molecular changes triggered by cancer treatment that might lead to new blood cancers later on in survivors’ lives.