Changemakers: Trailblazer for a Cure, Dr. Brad Nelson.

Dr. Brad Nelson. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

In a realm of research that is defined by innovation, Dr. Brad Nelson is a trailblazer. As director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Trev and Joyce Deeley Research Centre (DRC) in Victoria, Nelson’s specific focus is immunotherapy — activating various aspects of the body’s immune system to detect and fight cancer cells — and he’s set to roll out a series of promising clinical trials that will see new immunotherapy techniques applied to gynecological and blood cancers early in 2019.

The trials can take place in part because of a state-of-the-art “clean room,” also known as the Conconi Family Immunotherapy Lab. This clean room allows scientists to apply their T-cell technology — which involves removing, fortifying and returning to the body naturally existing cancer fighting T-cells. Established by Nelson in 2016, this clean room is one of few such spaces in Canada.

Despite the difficult narrative surrounding cancer, a talk with Nelson reveals that ample hope and motivation drive the research. The recent Nobel Prize awarded to scientists James Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work in the field of cancer immunotherapy adds to that foundation.

“Most days what I’m feeling is that I can see the future, and there’s no question in my mind that we have already cured some cancers, and we are going to figure out how to cure the others,” says Nelson, who has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.

“Every day I see so much progress that I have to run as fast as I can just to keep up with the field, it’s moving so quickly, so we will get there.”

What’s the first thing you do each day (to set the tone for productivity)?

On my bike ride to work, I pass by the Terry Fox statue at Mile 0. As I ride by, I say hi to Terry and spend the next few minutes thinking about the day that lies ahead. I challenge myself to ensure that everything I do that day, even the most routine admin work, contributes to a cure for cancer.

When you stall on an idea or problem, how do you work through it?

Some problems I work through on my own by writing down my ideas, drawing diagrams, reading the literature, or playing the guitar. For problems outside my expertise, I pull together a team to brainstorm. The quality of your work is proportional to the quality of people you work with.

Who inspires you?

People who seek the truth in this world, whether it’s in science, art, politics or spirituality.

How do you decompress?

Camping on the Island with my friends [with] music, beer, campfires and no cell service!

This article is from the December/January 2019 issue of Douglas.