Medical researcher Xiaoyang Liu was recently honoured at the McGill Toronto Excellence Awards (Photo: Paul Terefenko)


A passion for solving medical mysteries

Dr. Xiaoyang Liu vividly remembers the moment when her oncology research data – meticulously collected and recorded – suddenly took on another form: the face of a small child confronting a life-threatening brain tumor.

Story by Wendy Helfenbaum

September 2019

Dr. Xiaoyang Liu vividly remembers the moment when her oncology research data – meticulously collected and recorded – suddenly took on another form: the face of a small child confronting a life-threatening brain tumor.

“Initially during my PhD work, I was on the research side of pediatric glioblastoma…you open spreadsheets and analyze the data. But in the ward, I saw one of the cases we’d gotten a sample from, and it was just devastating, because this young patient was paralyzed,” recalls Liu, BSc’07, PhD’13, MDCM’15.

“That kind of emotional impact is unforgettable and very sad, but it motivates me to continuously improve practices and treatments through my research; maybe there are ways we can help with diagnosis and treatment plans that would potentially make a difference in a patient’s life.”

Since moving to Canada in 2003, Liu has indeed made a huge impact. In June, she was honoured at the McGill Toronto Excellence Awards luncheon, receiving a Rising Star award in recognition of her award-winning research, stellar academic achievements and unwavering commitment to the McGill community.

The only child of two chemical engineers, Liu grew up in Tianjin, China, about 135 kilometres from Beijing. When Liu was 18, her family came to Montreal and she began her studies at McGill.

“The high school that I attended in China provided me with a background that made the transition in Canada easy for physics, chemistry and mathematics,” says Liu.

“I had a lot of difficulty with biology, though, and could barely understand anything in class, because the technical vocabulary and names of species were completely different.”

Liu was grateful to have resources such as a McGill Note Taking Club – lectures were recorded and transcribed so students could share notes.

“That was a lifesaver for me as a new immigrant, and so was the International Buddy Program and McGill’s collaborative study atmosphere,” says Liu.

On top of her packed course load, Liu co-founded the Chinese Student and Scholars Association, which helps foreign students transition to university life.

“As a newcomer, you don’t have friends yet, you’re learning in a new language and coming from mainland China, and the mentality and culture is quite different from the Chinese students who were born and raised in Canada,” she explains.

Liu did a combined MDCM and PhD training program at the Department of Human Genetics and at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.

During a two-week radiology rotation during her third year of medicine, Liu found her calling.

“Radiology is right at the cross-section of different disciplines: There’s the physics aspect, with new imaging modalities coming in all the time. There’s a great integration with technology, and in the clinical aspect, we interact with different physicians and surgeons, so we’re like a consulting team for the whole hospital,” she explains.

Liu has received many scholarships and awards. Perhaps her most important recognition came in 2012: a Fonds Santé award for her article on driver mutations for pediatric glioblastoma – deadly cancer that originates in the brain. Her PhD research alongside her advisor, Dr. Nada Jabado, showed that children and adults respond differently to cancer treatments, and her discovery of a mutation in a vital gene represented a major breakthrough that may change how brain tumors are treated as new developments in personalized medicine emerge.

“This was a team effort, and I was very lucky to find my supervisor, Dr. Jabado, because she was one of the few people who worked on cancer genomics at the time, and she’s a pioneer in Canada,” says Liu.

“Before we found this genetic mutation, pediatric glioblastomas were treated the same way as adult glioblastomas, but although they look the same under the microscope and when we cut them out, pediatric glioblastomas are intrinsically different because they don’t respond to the adult treatment,” she explains.

“Now, the diagnosis and treatment direction is focused very differently on the pediatric side, and a lot of the work we’re doing has changed the way the World Health Organization classifies this tumor, which impacts every aspect of clinical practice as well.”

Liu is currently a diagnostic radiology resident at the University of Toronto. As a clinician scientist, she especially enjoys the investigative part of her job, solving the puzzles of disease by identifying imaging clues through radiogenomics, which enables a more detailed look at microscopic views of the body.

“When reading a CT scan or MRI, you’re looking at images from the radiologist, but there’s actually more information in the underlying pixels – how variable they are, how high- or low-level they are,” she explains.

“It’s kind of like looking at a tissue with your eyes versus looking at it under the microscope. Through a machine-learning algorithm, we’re able to process such a huge amount of data. Radiogenomics gives us more clues so we can classify the genetic subtypes of diseases, leading towards personalized medicine, minimal invasion and a more accurate diagnosis. That’s the goal of this research.”

Next year, Liu will continue her research and practice as a Harvard University clinical fellow.

She hopes to bring her knowledge back to Canada so she can contribute to patient care, and pay it forward to the McGill community that nurtured her through 12 years of training.

“There’s an old Chinese saying, ‘You can fly as high as the sky reaches’. McGill provides an endless height of sky so you can go as high as you can reach, and they’ve also given me many sets of wings to help me get there.”

published in September 2019

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