Cheryl Wellington

Dr. Cheryl Wellington

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Dr. Cheryl Wellington and I study disorders of the brain especially Alzheimer’s Disease and Traumatic Brain Injury.

When did you begin working at UBC?

I joined the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC in 2000.

What motivates you personally to undertake your research?

Pretty much everyone has had a family member or friend suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease or who have experienced a concussion, and I am strongly motivated to provide good evidence of how we may do better at diagnosis and treatment for these conditions.

When did you know you were going to focus on this area? What was your "aha!" moment?

I became focused on the brain during my postdoctoral training, where I first studied the molecular underpinnings of learning and memory at Harvard Medical School and later studied Huntington Disease, a neurodegenerative movement disorder, at UBC. These experiences focused my full attention on the brain. Developing my research program at UBC has allowed me to add new research topics as my program grows, and now we are taking several approaches to our understanding of Alzheimer's Disease and Traumatic Brain Injury including clinical collaborations, innovative in vitro studies, and studies in animal models. For me, the “aha” moments come regularly and always drive the research forward.

What is the ultimate goal of your research program?

I want to discover and validate better ways to diagnose and treat brain disorders, especially Alzheimer’s Disease and Traumatic Brain Injury.

How does your work with animals advance the research you are doing?

My research is driven by clinical needs and uses animal model systems to answer specific questions that would be unethical or impossible to study in people or within vitro models.

Why is the use of animals necessary in your research?

Very good examples come from our program on Traumatic Brain Injury, which affects over 3 million people per year, mostly from mild injuries including concussion. In fact, 50% of Canadian youth have experienced concussion and about one in five take a long time to recover. One example of why animals are necessary in research is that people with concussion don’t get a brain biopsy, so we have no way other than using animals to understand exactly what happens to brain tissue after concussion. Another example is that it would be unethical to do many types of rigorously controlled concussion studies in people, including studies that would require us to induce one or more concussions to one group of people and compare them to people without concussion. With animals, we can do these studies upon approval by our animal ethics research committee. These are but two examples of how concussion research in animal models can provide evidence to develop better guidelines for how to manage people with concussion.

Outside of your research, if I want to engage you in conversation, what should I ask you about?

Anything to do with cooking, dance, or rock climbing.

Research involving animals can be an emotive topic. What do you say to people who are unsure how to feel about it?

There are several ways to put research involving animals into perspective.

First, research involving animals at an acclaimed and accredited institution like UBC follows very strict ethical protocols that ensure the highest standards of care and welfare of the animals used in research. Every single procedure needs to be approved by the ethics committee and is conducted and monitored using standards that are at least as high for standards for people. Importantly, these standards far exceed the standards for animals in the food industry and, in many cases, pets.

Second, animal models are used in research only when there is no other way to ethically or scientifically obtain high-quality data to an unmet medical need for people. One part of the ethical approval process is to provide details on why no other method could replace an experiment in an animal model, and another part requires us to justify how many animals are needed. In fact, my program on Traumatic Brain Injury has allowed us to develop ways to greatly reduce the number of animals used in this field of research and also reduce the invasiveness of procedures. Our success has been noted by other researchers around the world who are now using our methods in their own programs.

Third, before being tried in people, a new treatment for any disease normally requires evidence in at least one animal model that the intervention is both safe and effective.

Taken together, these viewpoints ensure that there is a clear and justifiable need to use animals for research, and that every component of the research is performed and documented using the highest scientific and ethical standards.