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Professor and Board of Governors’ Research Chair, CIHR Chair in Gender and Health, University of Lethbridge

By: Kate Robertson

During Dr. Olga Kovalchuk’s remarkable career journey, she has turned an experience with disaster at a young age into positive, groundbreaking scientific research.

Originally from the Ukraine, Dr. Kovalchuk was just 16 years old and attending high school when there was a fire and an explosion at Chernobyl. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history. The 1986 tragedy caused 57 fatalities directly related to the explosion and radiation sickness, and the harmful radioactive contamination that was released into the environment had devastating consequences to the life and ecology in the area. In the long-term, thousands of people became more susceptible to developing cancer because they had been exposed to radiation.

Now, 25 years later, Dr. Kovalchuk is a professor and biological sciences and epigenetics researcher at the University of Lethbridge, and has devoted her work to finding out what effect long-term exposure to radiation has on the body. By studying the changes in cellular and molecular structures in people and animals after they have been exposed to radiation, Dr. Kovalchuk and her team are looking beyond inherited genetics and DNA to figure out how the external environment triggers illness or DNA damage.

Dr. Kovalchuk’s laboratory work has proven that chronic exposure to radiation is more dangerous than scientists had believed in the past. Before, it was thought that low doses of radiation prolonged over a period of time were less harmful than high doses over a brief period of time. But Dr. Kovalchuk’s lab has shown the opposite. In fact, significant DNA and cellular damage can be caused by low but prolonged doses of radiation. Because of the research led by Dr. Kovalchuk, we now know that the total sum of radiation that a person is exposed to is not necessarily more relevant than the way it is delivered.

With a special emphasis on breast cancer and hematological malignancies like leukemia and lymphomas, not only is Dr. Kovalchuk’s laboratory team working to find out how genes and radiation cause illness, but her lab was also one of the first to reveal the existence of the Radiation-Induced Bystander Effect. The bystander effect occurs when cells that aren’t being targeted in cancer radiation therapy act as if they have been irradiated, which can also trigger DNA damage or cell mutation that leads to cancer.

Dr. Kovalchuk’s lab at the University of Lethbridge has also created a model for how the effects of radiation can move from generation to generation, to the children of those who have been exposed. Studies show that the progeny of parents who have been exposed to radiation have a much higher risk of developing cancers such as leukemia than those whose parents have not been exposed. Dr. Kovalchuk’s lab is hoping to find ways to protect the children of parents who have been exposed from developing cancer.

Dr. Kovalchuk’s lab has also discovered that men and women respond differently to ionizing radiation – that which has enough energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule, and which is particularly chemically reactive. The laboratory’s discoveries could mean that, eventually, scientists will develop a separate radiation treatment and diagnostic program dependent on a patient’s sex. The research could also change the way patients are protected from radiation in the future.

Because of the extraordinary discoveries she has made in gender-specific consequences to radiation exposure at the University of Lethbridge, Dr. Kovalchuk was one of six individuals to earn a research chair position in New Perspectives in Gender, Sex and Health from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and its Institute of Gender and Health (IGH).

The CIHR chair positions were created by the IGH to recognize and expand upon the highest standard in gender and sex health research in Canada. Dr. Kovalchuk’s position is a prestigious one that includes funding in the amount of $750,000 over a five-year period for her research.

In addition, thanks in part to Dr. Kovalchuk’s work, in 2009 the University of Lethbridge received more than $3.2 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to create a multi-disciplinary research team to study epigenetics.

In March of 2007, Dr. Kovalchuk was appointed a research chair by the Board of Governors at the University of Lethbridge. The recipients of the distinguished honour – including Dr. Kovalchuk’s husband, Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, also a faculty member of the biological sciences department at the University – are judged by their teaching and research activities, and are selected by their peers.

Dr. Kovalchuk has sat on a total of 24 review boards and committees, and has also received support from the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, US Department of Energy Low Dose Radiation Program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Last June, Dr. Kovalchuk was selected among 1,200 nominees as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 for her work in the field. She has won nine notable awards, including the YWCA Women of Influence Award as a Community Leader this year.

Kovalchuk completed her undergraduate studies at Ivano- Frankivsk National Medical University – located 600 km away from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Since 1995, she worked detailing how the event affected the genetics of the people, plants and animals in the area before completing her PhD in 1998 at the Ukrainian National Scientific Centre of Medical Genetics and Hygiene.

Dr. Kovalchuk went on to do postdoctoral work in Basel, Switzerland, at the Friedrich Miescher Institiute for Biomedical Research and at Novartis (now Syngenta AG) in health assessment and cell biology, also in Basel. The recognition Dr. Olga Kovalchuk has received by her own institution and beyond in the 10 years since she arrived from the Ukraine at Alberta’s University of Lethbridge speaks to the significant contributions she has made in her field.

That recognition will allow Dr. Kovalchuk and her team at the laboratory to continue and expand upon the important work she is doing.