Master's student earns Alberta Cancer Foundation research studentship award

University of Lethbridge master’s student, Anna Kovalchuk (BSc ’14), has been awarded the 2014 Dr. Cyril M. Kay Graduate Studentship from the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

Anna Kovalchuk is examining the effects of chemotherapy drugs on the brain using an animal model.

A prestigious awards program, these studentships are awarded to exceptional students interested in medical or health research related to cancer. They are available across the cancer control continuum, including studies in etiology, prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment, health services and palliation.

Kovalchuk’s project, which was deemed to be the highest-ranked project of those chosen to receive awards, involves examining the effects of chemotherapy drugs on the brain using an animal model. She receives $27,000 for the first year of her study, as well as a research stipend valued at $1,500 that allows her to attend conferences and like events.

“The project is sort of a continuation of what I was working on while I was an undergraduate student,” says Kovalchuk, whose master’s thesis supervisor is Dr. Bryan Kolb in the University’s Department of Neuroscience. “That project involved looking at the effects of radiation on rats and I thought it’d be interesting to look at the other form of cancer treatment, chemotherapy. We want to profile what happens on a molecular level to see what’s going on, which genes are being upregulated or downregulated.”

Patients undergoing chemotherapy often report cognitive after effects, such as attention deficit and memory loss. Kovalchuk’s work will attempt to decipher what chemotherapy drugs are doing genetically and may help explain, at least in part, mechanisms of the chemo brain phenomenon.

“We’re not looking for a way to make a new treatment, instead we want to look at what is happening on a molecular level in the brains of animals exposed to chemo drugs to see if we can profile what the drugs are doing to the brain cells,” she says. “If we can understand the mechanics of what’s going on at the base molecular level in the brain, we could be better enabled to find ways to help people who, after having chemotherapy, suffer these side effects.”

Kovalchuk, the daughter of accomplished University of Lethbridge genetic researchers Drs. Igor and Olga Kovalchuk, is passionate in her desire to combat cancer. She has consistently been among the country’s leading fundraisers for the annual Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure Post Secondary Challenge, and her professional goal is to become a radiation oncologist. She recently wrote her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and will be applying to medical school later this fall.

“I’m just so grateful to have received this award from the Alberta Cancer Foundation so that I can continue along with this project and make a contribution to fight against cancer,” she says.