Pilarski, Dr. Linda

2009 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Technology

Linking Disciplines To Create Innovative Technologies

Dr. Linda Pilarski has always been motivated by helping patients. In her current research the patients are helping her, too. She’s using tissue donations from patients to understand their cancer, detect it, and find treatments for it.

”I couldn’t do this kind of research without the help of patients,“ says the pre-eminent cancer researcher and professor at the University of Alberta’s Cross Cancer Institute. “They are also passionate about my research. They know that research is essential for more effective therapies and holds potential for long-term control or cure. We get mutually excited about the possibilities.”

Developing New Technologies

Dr. Pilarski specializes in cancer of the human immune system and novel technology focused on better diagnosis and monitoring tools for the clinic. Together with her long time clinical research partner, Dr Andrew Belch, Dr. Pilarski  has been a pioneer in developing approaches to analyze the biological processes underlying human cancer using fresh malignant cells from patients.  Her research has resulted in two major technologies with commercial impact and has amassed a large and compelling body of scientific discovery and innovation, protected by several patent families.

Her innovative work in identifying new applications for hyaluronan—a very large sugar molecule that plays key roles in health and disease—as a therapeutic agent has produced a new treatment  strategy that is already in commercial development. It will provide a powerful tool for helping individuals with, for example, cancer, HIV or autoimmune diseases. Her research in this area has also led to exciting new approaches to develop drugs for early intervention.

“With this new type of therapeutic approach,  cells can be collected from a patient before treatment with an otherwise lethal dose of anti-cancer drugs,” Dr. Pilarski explains, “then after the treatment the cells are given back to rebuild the blood.”

Personalized Medicine

In Dr. Pilarski’s latest research project she leads a large multidisciplinary team, funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research that is developing microfluidic devices for automated molecular medicine, sometimes called “lab on a chip.” These laptop-sized or handheld devices have the potential to perform sophisticated, inexpensive molecular profiling in any health care centre no matter how small or remote.

“That research started with the idea that personalized medicine is the wave of future,” Dr. Pilarksi says. “If we can identify the molecular makeup of an individual with cancer or another disease, we can give them the most effective treatment, based on the person and disease.”

Even though Dr. Pilarski’s work appears to be in two unrelated disciplines, therapeutics and nanotechnology, she is excited by the links she sees between them.  “Each enriches and needs the other,” she says. “Using science and technology is an integrated and incremental process; we build on what we and others have done before, to bring research advances to the community.”