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Q & A with Tommy Alain

What attracted you to join the CHEO Research Institute?
I think it’s a really good fit for me here. I have a passion for working with children; in fact, the prospect of making a discovery that helps a young child – and knowing the impact will span their lifetime – is incredibly motivating. I already enjoyed a great working relationship with the CHEO Research Institute while I was working at McGill University, but I was particularly impressed by the support and interest shown by the community toward lab-based research here in Ottawa.

What's included in your research portfolio?
I’m working as a Scientist in the Molecular Biomedicine program here, and my research focuses on virology and oncology. Viruses are mostly known for their role in causing severe diseases, but many viral interactions can actually have beneficial implications, from preventing or vaccinating against other maladies to treating malignancies. The latter is a central focus of my laboratory. I have a particular interest in how this relates to cancer.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been studying how the messages encoded into our DNA are translated into the factors that control body functions. This process, called mRNA translation or protein synthesis, is frequently under a complete loss of control in cancer and provides a proliferative advantage. How this dysregulation affects cancer progression; how it can influence therapeutic efficacies; and how it modulates responses to viral infections; are just some of the questions my lab is currently exploring.

Please describe your research using an analogy...
When I talk to my daughters about the general idea of my research, I like to compare it to the story of the “Sorcerer’s apprentice”. I learned recently that it was originally a poem written in 1797, but I knew it from Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice and enchanting a broom to do chores in the castle while his master is away. Mickey however gets ahead of himself, excessively multiplying the brooms and eventually loosing all control over them. The brooms then cause disruptions and chaos almost flooding the entire castle. Fortunately, the master returns and casts a spell to put everything back in order. Cancer cells are a bit like Mickey; they've lost control over factors that normally regulate proper cell function, leading to disastrous effects. My interest lies in figuring out the spell(s) and understanding the enchantment that can reverse this dysregulation to regain control.

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