Student researchers inspired by legacy of cancer patient

Every morning when they go to work in their Essex Hall biochemistry lab, PhD students Pam Ovadje and Dennis Ma get an inspirational reminder of why they’re there. Mounted on the door to that lab is a plaque dedicating the space to the memory of Kevin Couvillon, who died at the age of 26 in November 2010, after a three-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia.

Last week, Ovadje, Ma and other graduate students from the lab of professor Siyaram Pandey met with Couvillon’s parents to give them an update on their research into how such natural products as dandelion root extract and pancratistatin – derived from a Hawaiian spider lily plant – cause certain cancer cells to effectively commit suicide.

Dave Couvillon

Dave Couvillon.

After an emotional presentation in the Toldo Health Education building on what would have been Kevin’s 28th birthday, his father Dave discreetly handed Dr. Pandey a cheque for $20,000 to help fund the research, bringing the total the family has donated to the lab to $40,000. It was gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by the students.

“You have people who believe in your research and have faith in what you’re doing, so for us, that’s really motivational,” said Ma, who has published four journal articles in the last year that were all related to pancratistatin and all devoted to the memory of Kevin Couvillon.

Ovadje, who has also published four papers on dandelion root extract and devoted them to Couvillon, said meeting people who have been so deeply affected by cancer is a source of inspiration.

“Now I put a face to my project,” she said. “I’m not just looking at cancer cells. I’m thinking about the people who have been diagnosed with cancer. It gives us the extra push that we need. It just makes us want to work that much harder.”

Pandey and his students study apoptosis, the process of cell death, and how certain natural product formulations can cause some cancer cells to die without harming the healthy cells around them. The dandelion root formula they work with, which is about five times more concentrated than the extract that can be purchased over the counter, has proven to kill leukemia, melanoma and pancreatic cancer cells in lab mice.

Caroline Hamm, an oncologist at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre, is applying to Health Canada to proceed with human clinical trials. Pandey said the process can be expedited because they’re working with a natural product and that if all goes well, they could be testing the substance on a group of 24 patients within six months to a year.

That was music to the ears of the Couvillons.

“It’s just so important to try to find something non-toxic,” said Dave. “We know that if Kevin had something non-toxic, he would have made it. His immune system had become compromised by the chemotherapy, and he got an infection that eventually took him. He could fight the cancer but he couldn’t fight the cure.”

Watch a seven-second video of cancer cell apoptosis.
The cells that look like they are boiling or fizzing are undergoing death: