September 21, 2020

Q&A with new OICR Investigator Dr. Anastasia Tikhonova on tackling cancer cell cross-talk and adapting in a rapidly evolving field

OICR welcomes Dr. Anastasia Tikhonova to Toronto as an OICR Investigator and Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

The pandemic has compelled many people to adapt, and researchers are no exception. For Dr. Anastasia Tikhonova, adapting has always been an essential part of her career.

Tikhonova recently joined the OICR community as an OICR Investigator working at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Her research focuses on hematological malignancies – or blood cancers – and how the environment around these cells can regulate their growth or help them resist standard treatments. Her research in this area will support the development of new cancer therapies that can ultimately help patients live longer and healthier lives.

Here, she describes her research program and why this community is a great place for her.

What is your research all about?

AT: Cancer cells do not exist in isolation. They are surrounded – and influenced – by their healthy neighbouring cells. For a long time, we didn’t fully understand the interactions between a cancer cell and its surrounding environment and how this dialogue impacts tumour growth. The last five years have significantly advanced imaging and genomic technologies that allow us to precisely decode the cross-talk between diseased cells and their environment – or their niche.

This is what my research is all about. My team uses single-cell transcriptomics, high-resolution imaging, and functional genomics to understand the connection between the complex elements in the bone marrow and cancer. Our goal is to untangle these connections and devise new strategies to target the interaction between leukemic cells and their environment, with the goal of eliminating blood cancers.

What got you interested in this space?

AT: I was fascinated by biology as a child. I remember learning about evolution in my first biology class in the fifth grade – I have been hooked ever since! I love being in the lab. I am exhilarated by seeing results for the first time and being able to connect the dots between different experiments. When I recognize a gap in my understanding, I feel compelled to learn more. This is how I became interested in the stem cell niche and leukemic microenvironment. As a Postdoctoral Fellow, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a top hematopoietic lab where I started to scratch the surface of understanding the niche’s molecular architecture, but many questions remain. Continuing this line of inquiry, I look forward to translating my findings into innovative therapies here in Ontario.

Why did you choose to come to Ontario?

AT: Princess Margaret is one of the top cancer research centres in the world. During my recruitment I had an amazing experience interacting with the faculty and trainees here. They were highly engaged and asked great questions, indicating a rich intellectual environment. Since most of my ideas come to me when I am working with others, this is the ideal place for my young lab to grow intellectually. Plus, the people here are genuinely supportive. My move was delayed due to COVID, but everyone here has been exceptionally helpful.

How has COVID impacted your work?

AT: An important trait to have as a scientific researcher is agility or the ability to quickly adapt to changing environments. Furthermore, COVID made me realize that nothing can shake my enthusiasm for starting a research group.

As a result of pandemic, I think people have become more open to collaboration. In some ways, online communication has leveled the playing field, bringing geographically distant researchers into the same space as colleagues accustomed to side-by-side interactions.

I also think COVID has brought science into public view. For the first time in my life, I hear immunology terms on the morning news. I’m excited by the prospect of biomedical research being a common discussion topic.

Does your work apply to other diseases?

AT: Yes, it does. I have a specific focus in a rare form of leukemia, called T-ALL. My research applies to other cancers as well. Insights from one disease can often guide our understanding of other malignancies.

Notably, my research in the regenerative medicine space of the bone marrow niche has the potential to impact thousands of patients treated every year with bone marrow transplantation. Additionally, if we can better understand how to regenerate the bone marrow microenvironment, we could bring a whole new treatment paradigm to patients with a wide spectrum of benign and malignant diseases. At the end of the day, this is what it’s all about.

Learn more about Dr. Anastasia Tikhonova.