Faces of U of T Medicine: Natalie Landon-Brace

Dec 6, 2017

When it comes to drug discovery research, there can often be bumps in the road, including promising lab results that don’t translate into safe treatments for people. Natalie Landon-Brace is in her first year of the MD/PhD program and hopes to take this challenge on during her doctoral studies. A recipient of the 2017 Dean Catharine Whiteside Scholarship for Clinician-Scientists, Landon-Brace hopes to explore platform technology — using or adapting a relatively simple system and applying it in different contexts — to tackle such problems. Recently, she spoke with writer Erin Howe about her experience so far in medical school and her research plans.

What did you do before you began medical school?

My background is in biomedical engineering — I did my undergraduate studies here at U of T in engineering science. I’ve done a bit of work in cancer genetics and bioinformatics.  I’ve also done a bit of work in platform technologies. One of my projects involved a cell-based drug delivery system for prostate cancer.

During your undergraduate studies, you spent a year in Boston as part of the Professional Experience Year Program. What was that experience like?

I went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and worked on a cell-based drug delivery project. It’s very different from here. I’m from Toronto originally, and so it was nice to get a different perspective and spend some time living in a different city. It was exciting to be in that fast paced, innovative environment. There are a lot of people doing very cutting edge, high-risk, high-reward projects, so it was cool to be immersed in that.

Tell me more about the research you were doing while you were there.

I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades sort of intern. The main project I worked on involved cancer drugs. New drugs are being developed and although they might work well in a dish or even in an animal model, some can’t be used in people because the therapeutic window is too narrow. That means there isn’t much difference between the dose at which the drug is effective and the dose at which it is toxic.

I was in Jeff Karp’s engineering lab, which researches biomaterials, stem cell technology and platform technology. In collaboration with a clinician-scientist, we wanted to develop a system that would let us more specifically deliver drugs to tumour sites to use these new drugs without the significant toxic effects.

My project involved the innate immune system and white blood cells. Our collaborators had demonstrated that some drugs can increase white blood cell infiltration to tumours. We wanted to see if we could harness that effect and use white blood cells as carriers to deliver drugs for us.

Why did you choose to take part in the MD/PhD Program? What made this an appealing option?

I always knew I wanted to consider doing an MD and a PhD in the future and they were always together in my mind. I really want my future career to involve patient care, but also the opportunity to innovate and try to improve health care through new discovery. My experience in Boston cemented this for me and made me confident that the MD/PhD program would be the right fit. I think it was important to branch out and see what the academic environment is like elsewhere, but I was easily lured back to Toronto. I think some of the best medical innovation and research in the world is happening here and that sealed the decision to stay.

You’re the recipient of the 2017 Dean Catharine Whiteside Scholarship for Clinician-Scientists. What was your reaction to learning you’d received this honour?

I met so many impressive people on the interview trail, I think the MD/PhD applicant pool is incredibly qualified. I was amazed that they picked me. It’s an incredible honour to be selected and ultimately, played a big part in my decision to stay at U of T.

You’re planning to begin your PhD in September of 2018. What do you hope to focus on?

I’m interested in developing platform technology to improve our understanding of disease and to increase the clinical relevance of laboratory discoveries. An example would be looking at how to grow 3D tissue models in the lab with real patient cells. Ultimately, the hope is to use these types of model systems to improve and expand treatment options for patients. This could take the shape of discovering new potential drug targets or improving our ability to determine which drugs might work best on which patients. The possibilities are extremely broad.

What’s your favourite thing about the MD program so far?

The main thing is that everything feels relevant. It’s easy to see how what we’re doing in in the Foundations Curriculum is relevant to the future — especially the clinical skills and case based learning. There’s also a lot of opportunity to learn how to interpret things within the context of clinical problems and scenarios. It’s possible to see the progression from knowing very little to where we hope we’ll end up one day.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not studying?

I teach swimming lessons and do a lot of tutoring. I enjoy working with kids. It can be challenging, but fun and very rewarding as well. I also love to play tennis. Sports are definitely my big outlet — and Netflix.

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