Witnessing the unveiling of a scientific breakthrough first-hand is inspirational for anyone. For Dean Betts, PhD, associate professor, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, witnessing the unveiling of Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell stirred a curiosity and passion within him, and was a career-motivating experience.
The experience led him to change the focus of his PhD work from domestic animal embryology to cloning and investigating the premature aging of somatic cell animal clones. Doing so, he became one of only a handful of animal cloners in the world.
With his PhD in hand, Betts pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University in the Department of Genetics. He was then offered a faculty position at the University of Guelph where he started his own lab to further look at animal cloning and developing stem cell technologies in domestic animals.
A few years later, he returned to Western University, where he had completed his undergraduate degree, and started his lab in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. It was a change he likens to a homecoming. He also switched his focus from animal research to human stem cell work.
Currently, Betts’ research focuses on understanding the different aspects of cell aging, cell fate determination and stem cell biology focusing in particular on one chromatin structure – the telomere. As mammals age, telomeres, the end caps of our chromosomes, shorten with every cell division in most cells leading to cellular aging.
In animal cells that are reprogrammed from adult cells to an embryonic state, these telomeres need to be re-lengthened, a process that, according to Betts, doesn’t efficiently happen, with a variability that is not well understood. He is using cellular reprogramming to understand the process better. He is also investigating telomerase, the enzyme that binds to the ends of chromosomes and synthesizes telomeric DNA.
Recent research, including studies from his lab, have shown that telomerase isoforms can also bind to other parts of the genome to modulate gene transcription, or can even modulate the metabolism of a cell by translocating into mitochondria, making them stress resistant.
These isoforms can be turned on in cancer cells, making cancer more aggressive and chemoresistant. Betts’ upcoming sabbatical will allow him to focus more on understanding this development. A better understanding can lead to possible treatments of more aggressive cancers.
“I’m just trying to solve some puzzles and train the next generation of scientists. I want to help any student I come in contact with understand more about what I know, get them interested in different aspects of biology and help them achieve their goals, whatever those might be”, he said.
In addition to his research, Betts is committed to mentoring and training the upcoming generations of researchers. His advice for up-and-coming trainees and scholars is to find something interesting, something about which they are passionate.
According to Betts, research is a combination of luck, hard work and opportunities, “You have to work hard, no matter what, because someone else will be working harder. But if you’re working hard at something you truly love, it won’t feel like work.”