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Pharmaceutical Sciences professor Judy Wong - photo by Martin Dee
Pharmaceutical Sciences professor Judy Wong - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 7 | Jul. 6, 2006

Cancer Researcher Sees Power of Tiny Enzyme

By Hilary Thomson

Tiny cellular timepieces that track human aging keep Judy Wong watching the clock.

Wong is keeping her eye on telomeres. These molecular structures are found at each end of a chromosome and serve to protect and maintain it. Telomeres shorten after each round of cell division, making them effective age-markers, much like rings of a tree. When they become too short after many cell divisions, cell replication stops — a limiting process that ensures cells proliferate according to the plan of our human blueprint.

Of particular interest to Wong is the connection between telomeres and cancer, and the role of the enzyme telomerase, which regulates the growth and function of telomeres. Nearly all cancer cells can activate telomerase to regenerate telomeres indefinitely, allowing for the unchecked spread of cells seen in the disease.

“I’m fascinated by the power of this enzyme,” says Wong, who is a Canada Research Chair in Mechanisms of Genome Maintenance, in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. “It’s a key target to combat cancer but it may also be exploited to grow cells that can be used to replace damaged tissue or blood vessels.”

Originally from Hong Kong — where her father owned a pharmaceutical company — Wong moved to Ontario when she was a teen. She completed three pharmacology degrees at University of Toronto before her post-doctoral training at University of California, Berkeley.

“I always intended to return to Canada, and the research chair and the dean’s vision for the faculty made UBC an attractive option,” she says. “I also appreciate the degree of scientific collaboration in Canada, which is quite different from the U.S. We’re good at maximizing funding by working together.”

“Judy has been a wonderful acquisition to the division of Pharmacology, and the faculty as a whole,” says division chair Brian Rodrigues. “She has been able to wonderfully integrate with the diverse group of individuals in our faculty, frequently offering constructive suggestions.  This in large part stems from her strong leadership abilities and her inherent gift of listening.”

Wong predicts the next big advance in telomere science will be the discovery of the mechanism responsible for maintaining the small portion of cancer cells that don’t exploit telomerase.

“When we know that, we’ll really understand telomeres and be able use them as the basis of new therapies,” she says.

When she’s not tuning in to telomeres, Wong enjoys walking in Stanley Park and Vancouver’s different cultural cuisines.

- - -

Judy Wong

Canada Research Chair in
Mechanisms of Genome Maintenance, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Affiliated Research Scientist, BC Cancer Agency, Associate Member, UBC Genetics Graduate Program

From: University of California, Berkeley

Originally from: Toronto

Education: Post-doctoral, University of California, Berkeley
PhD, University of Toronto

What is the major issue in your field?

Trying to discover how telomerase promotes the survival and proliferation of cells in addition to its role in telomere maintenance.

What attracted you to UBC?

A Canada Research Chair and the
dean’s vision for the faculty made
UBC an attractive option.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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