Jacquetta Trasler - A portrait

By Denisse Campos

Dr. Jacquetta Trasler’s career did not begin in a lab; she was training to be an obstetrician gynecologist at the Royal Victoria and the Jewish General Hospitals where some of the babies being born were abnormal. "At that time we often couldn’t identify the causes. Even now, the causes of about 60 to 70% of babies being born with malformations, including heart defects, neural tube defects or even learning and behavioral problems are still unknown," she says.

"I saw that there were many questions that needed to be addressed in the field of research into the causes of birth defects in children. If I wanted to make a contribution, I knew I needed advanced training in research," she says. Dr. Trasler went back to complete eight years of specialized training in research including a Ph.D. at McGill followed by postdoctoral studies in molecular genetics in Boston. In fact, her academic journey was ideal since her medical background helped her study conditions that she knew were very important.

Since returning to McGill and the Montreal Children’s Hospital nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Trasler has garnered some of the most prestigious awards in her research field, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Scientist Award and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec (FRSQ) National Scholar award. She is currently a James McGill Professor. Although she has not returned to clinical practice, she has used her medical background to foster the development of clinician-scientists and help build research programs in the hospital environment. Her research field continues to evolve.

In one of her first studies in the 1980s she studied the male mediated developmental effects of anti-cancer drugs. At the time, pregnant women were counselled about exposures to drugs and workplace conditions that could be harmful to their children. Little was known about whether a father’s exposure to medications could also cause birth defects. "For exposed men, we needed to prove that even if sperm were mobile, could fertilize the egg, and result in an embryo, they might still carry genetic or epigenetic damage that could result in a birth defect. Initial grants were hard to obtain," she recalls.

Working with Drs. Bernard Robaire and Barbara Hales at McGill University, she carried out the initial proof of concept experiments in animal models. In the last ten years, enough information has been gathered from animal studies to begin to conduct studies in humans. For instance, Dr. Trasler now works in collaboration with clinicians at the MUHC along with the MCH oncology team on young adolescents treated for leukemia and lymphoma. The team plans to counsel and offer sperm and tissue banking in case the cancer treatment results in sperm damage and problems with fertility later in the lives of these young men.

"This is a challenge, because you have to talk about fertility issues to adolescents who are not really thinking about fatherhood yet! But this important clinical research will help us establish what type of treatments may cause problems in the future and allow us to better counsel young cancer survivors."

All of her studies focus on understanding the causes of birth defects, whether to determine if the treatments that use vitamins to treat infertility will be problematic later, if they will affect babies yet to be born, or if some of the chemicals present in the environment, such as flame retardants, could affect genes in ways that may lead to cancer or cause growth defects.

The amazing thing about Dr. Trasler is that she is always looking forward, and looking forward for her also means "facing new challenges". "I have been very fortunate in my research career to work with excellent colleagues and trainees and receive generous funding from provincial and federal granting agencies such as CIHR and FRSQ to carry out my research on the causes of birth defects," she says. "My goal now is to help the next generation of young researchers/investigators to be successful. The field is very competitive. I want to help build a dynamic team that will continue to do excellent research in the field of child health."

Wearing the hat of Associate Director for Pediatric Research within the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre since 2007, she is in a good position to achieve her goals. After spending 10 years running the McGill MD/PhD program that trains clinician investigators, she now has the chance to mentor people once they are starting their own research labs.

Dr. Trasler’s role in pediatric research also gives her the chance to actively participate in the building of the new Research Institute of the MUHC at the Glen site. She brightens when she talks about the amazing possibilities of this new world-class centre with pediatric and adult sites next to one another and state-of-the-art clinical and research facilities.

"I have the chance to think about the programs, to plan for child health research within integrated new facilities that allow us to study disease across the lifespan," she says. Soon, she is certain, "we will be able to go from looking at children with disease to understanding what will happen to them in adulthood. We hope not only to better understand the genetic basis of disease, but also to intervene early on to prevent children from developing diseases later in life."