Pictured: Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, Dr. Leigha Rock, Dr. Brenda Merritt, Dr. Brendan Leung, Dr. Jeannette Boudreau

by Mark Campbell

It’s no secret to anyone who has visited an emergency room or followed the news in recent years that cracks in health care are turning into gaps, such as access to reliable therapies, data and front-line care.

Dal researchers are taking bold steps to address those gaps and create opportunities that impact health regionally and nationally.

Dr. Brendan Leung, associate professor with the Department of Applied Oral Sciences in the Faculty of Dentistry and the School of Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie, is one of them. He is working on growing lab replicas of patient tumors using their own cells. This could lead to better, faster results and change when and how patients receive treatment.

“If we can better understand and model the different stages in tumour progression, from early tumour to metastasis, we could optimize our treatment strategies to achieve better patient outcomes and less side effects.” Dr. Leung explains.

Dr. Leung is one of the health researcher panelists who will speak about these efforts at Dalhousie’s Feb. 23 Open Dialogue Live: “Building strong health outcomes through research.” This in-person and on-line event will offer insights about the ways Dalhousie is advancing health education, care, and research to achieve better results for people, populations and the health-care system.

Meeting patients’ treatment goals

Dr. Brenda Merritt, dean of the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie, is moderating this event. She believes the best way to build strong health outcomes for everyone is to invest more resources in preventative measures, policies and approaches.

“We need to figure out things such as why there are so many people in the emergency room and how we can have an impact on the chronic health conditions that bring them there through early interventions or treatments,” she says. “That would be my dream.”

Dalhousie researchers like Dr. Kenneth Rockwood (PGM’91), a professor with the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Dalhousie, are making progress in achieving that dream. Dr. Rockwood is exploring the relationship between frailty and dementia and how to get patients back to where they were before they became sick. But Dr. Rockwood says there is another outcome that merits equal consideration: are treatments meeting the goals of each patient?

“People come to us with the expectation that we’re going to make them better in a way that gets them back to baseline, or how they were before they were sick,” he says. “But if we don’t know the baseline for that patient, we cannot define success.”

Exploring illness prevention

Other Dalhousie researchers are also exploring opportunities for illness prevention. Dr. Leigha Rock, director and assistant professor at the School of Dental Hygiene, Faculty of Dentistry, is working to identify genetic factors, known as biomarkers, that could help predict who is at high risk for developing oral cancer. She is also leading Dalhousie in a multisite study to see if treatment will prevent disease from developing among those at risk.

“[Participation] is an important accomplishment not only for our faculty and the university, but also our region,” she says. “Given that the incidence of oral cancer is disproportionately higher in Atlantic Canada than the rest of the country, we have an opportunity to use our resources at Dalhousie to make a difference.”

For Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, a Cameron Cancer Scientist who also serves as scientific director of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute, making a difference involves using the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer. She is particularly interested in the potential of white blood cells known as natural killers (NK) that have proven effective in treating leukemia.

“There are great immunotherapies for diseases like skin cancer and some types of lung cancer,” says Dr. Boudreau, associate professor with the departments of Microbiology & Immunology and Pathology. “But for other cancers like pancreatic cancer, there are no good immunotherapies. Part of that has to do with the limits of what existing immunotherapies can do.”

Identifying the NK cells that could target and kill a wide range of tumors is an ambitious undertaking—one that is being made possible through collaborations with other Dalhousie researchers and shared resources. Dr. Boudreau says that vital support and complementary expertise will fuel innovations in health care with far-reaching impacts.

“The more complicated this work gets—and medicines have always been complicated—the more people you need to get to the finish line,” Dr. Boudreau says. “At Dalhousie, we have a pipeline of expertise that is not only bringing treatments from the lab to the patient’s bedside, but also bringing insights back from the bedside so we can do better. That will enable us to develop new treatments that not only benefit patients in Atlantic Canada, but also around the world.”


Open Dialogue Live: Building strong health outcomes through research happens Thursday, February 23, at the Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building, Theatre C, 5849 University Avenue, Halifax. It will simultaneously be streamed online. Registration is free but required for both in-person and online attendance.

Panelists will include:

  • Dr. Leigha Rock, director and assistant professor, School of Dental Hygiene, Faculty of Dentistry, Dalhousie University
  • Dr. Brendan Leung, an associate professor with the Department of Applied Oral Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry, and the School of Biomedical Engineering
  • Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, an associate professor with the Department of Microbiology & Immunology and with the Department of Pathology
  • Dr. Kenneth Rockwood (PGM’91), a professor with the Division of Geriatric Medicine in the Department of Medicine, and with the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at the School of Health Administration.

The event will be moderated by Dr. Brenda Merritt, dean of the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie.