From Metchosin to UVic, and on to Oxford


- Kim Westad

Governor General’s Gold Medal: Dr. Nathan West, biochemistry and microbiology

Growing up in rural Metchosin, Nathan West's interest in biology and nature came from walking out the back door.  Play dates were in the woods. For pocket money, West raised chickens and sold their eggs to local bakeries and neighbours.

His boyhood interest in science carried on through high school at Belmont Secondary, and expanded to include human biology as well.

So when West started at the University of Victoria in 2003, he thought he'd become a physician, combining his interests in biology and helping people.

But as he studied biology and microbiology during his undergrad, the world of research opened up. Of particular note was a fourth-year elective course on the molecular basis of cancer taught by Dr. Perry Howard.

“When I started, I didn't have a good feel for the research world but as I went on, I became more and more interested in the cool biology of the human body, particularly the biology of cancer and immunology,” West said. “The structure of the cell is an elegant system. It was cell biology that got me interested. Cancer, at its most fundamental level, is a problem of defective cell machinery.“

That led to an honours lab with Dr. Robert Burke, now chair of the biochemistry and microbiology department, that cemented West's interest in research as his way to contribute to medical science.

West continued at UVic for his PhD, working with Dr. Burke as well as with Dr. Peter Watson of the Deeley Research Centre at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

West's dissertation on breast cancer research, along with his 9.0 grade point average, led to his being honoured with the Governor General's gold medal this year, given annually to a student in a post graduate degree program on the basis of their marks and thesis

“Nathan is an outstanding citizen and his success in research is a great example of a key principle in research: “If you keep asking great questions, the discoveries will flow!” Watson said.

West's breast cancer research focused on the complex interactions that take place between cancer cells and the non-cancerous cells and molecules in their immediate surroundings, known generally as the tumour microenvironment.

Interactions between cancer and the immune system are increasingly recognized as processes that critically influence the outcome of disease, West states. While the presence of immune cells in tumours is thought to reflect an attempt at disease eradication or containment, cancer cells can exploit the immune system through a variety of means, including the recognition of leukocyte-derived cytokines. West's dissertation explored the influences of one such cytokine, oncostatin-M (OSM) on the behaviour of breast cancer cells.

West, 27, is now working at the University of Oxford in the experimental medicine division at John Radcliffe Hospital, focusing on research into colorectal cancer and how the immune system is involved in cancer development.

“With research, you're not technically restricted to investigating any one thing. You can decide what is important and pursue it and the thrill of discovery is quite a charge,” said West, who wants to provide meaningful improvements in patient welfare for people with cancer.

West works hard at making his research accessible, so that people can better understand the valuable role research plays in science and medicine.

“We need research to make sense to as many people as possible. It's important for funding and also important for the public, who have a major stake in research.”


In this story

Keywords: biochemistry, microbiology, doctoral research

People: Nathan West, Robert Burke, Peter Watson

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