Dr. Jenessa Johnston wins Governor General’s Gold Medal for dissertation on patient-oriented reelin research

Congratulations to Dr. Jenessa Johnston (pictured top left; Caruncho / Kalynchuk lab) on receiving the Governor General’s Gold Medal Award.

imageThe Governor General’s Gold Medal recognizes the outstanding scholastic achievements of graduate students in Canada. At UVic, the Gold Medals are annually awarded to two students in a Master’s or PhD degree program within the Faculty of Graduate Studies on the basis of an outstanding dissertation and GPA.

“I was a bit shocked,” Jenessa says. “I was excited to receive the award, but again I was really not expecting it. There are so many people doing such cool research at UVic. I was honoured to just be put forward.”

Jenessa’s dissertation explored the role of reelin in depression and the molecular mechanisms behind the protein’s fast-acting antidepressant response. What she feels made her work truly unique, however, was the significant focus she put on patients. “Patients know more than us about their experience of the disorder. It’s really important to hear their side of things and what they want tackled as well,” she says. “I tried to link those two things: the basic science we were conducting in the lab and societal and patient expectations for our work.”

One of the main things Jenessa says her patient partners shared with her was their desire for effective depression treatments that include less invasive procedures, fewer side effects, and fewer trials. So, she and her colleagues in the Caruncho / Kalynchuk lab asked themselves how they could design preclinical experiments that would satisfy those patients’ needs. In one case, that led them to create an experiment that would help predict the best treatment for a patient, thus reducing the number of trials needed. They also made the procedure for that experiment less invasive by gathering samples via a finger prick instead of a blood draw.

Fulfilling patients’ needs for effective depression treatments with fewer side effects is a major reason Jenessa decided to research reelin in the first place. Through her basic science work, she wanted to find out if reelin had similar antidepressant effects to ketamine, which Jenessa calls “a gold-standard, fast-acting treatment” for depression. Ketamine works faster than many other antidepressants and is effective on treatment-resistant depression, which can be vital when working with patients who need immediate help. However, ketamine has its drawbacks; it can cause serious side effects and lead to health problems in some populations, which “makes doesn’t make it all that desirable or appropriate for a lot of people.” If reelin could provide the fact-acting, wide-ranging relief of ketamine while avoiding the negative side effects, it could open up those benefits to more people.

“To our shock but also our joy, we found that a peripheral administration of reelin have these same effects and seem to be working through the same cellular signaling pathways,” says Jenessa.  

She is excited about the future of reelin research and the possible treatments it could provide to people living with depression. So, to ensure this future work continues to adequately address patients’ needs, she created guidelines on how to include more patient voices in research and included these in her dissertation.

“We need to make sure we were tackling the issues that matter the most to patients instead of going off on our own little tangents,” she says. “For example, if we know there is a side effect people really don’t like, then it’s not in our best interest—or the best use of our resources—to research therapies that produce that side effect. Even if the therapy cures other symptoms, there’s a possibility people won’t use it.”

“I think people are realizing the importance of translational research,” she adds. “Patients are the main drivers of research; they are the reason that we’re doing what we do. I think ignoring their voices is pretty detrimental to everyone.”

Since graduating with her PhD this spring, Jenessa has transitioned into conducting patient-centered clinical research on depression and other mood disorders. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow studying experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

imageDr. Hector Caruncho (pictured right with Jenessa and Dr. Lisa Kalynchuk), who is one of her co-supervisors at UVic, is proud of—but not surprised by—Jenessa’s accomplishments. He recounts recommending she go to NIMH to work with some of his collaborators early on during her PhD. When his colleagues at NIMH suggested that sending a postdoc may be more effective than a grad student, “I insisted that the student we would send was a high caliber one who could really benefit the process,” he says. “Basically, in a few weeks they were already adamant that she should go and work with them as a postdoc when she finished her thesis as she was definitely quite good—and that’s exactly what she did.”

Jenessa received her Bachelor of Arts with a specialized Honours in Cognitive Neuroscience from York University in 2018. She then joined the Caruncho / Kalynchuk lab through the UVic Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP), where she spent a year in the NGP MSc program before transferring to the PhD program. During her graduate studies, Dr. Johnston received more than $150,000 in funding awards from agencies including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She also received three UVic President’s Research Scholarships.