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Dr. Jason Berman

Dr. Berman (back, right) with Olivia, brother, Matthew, and her parents Barry and
Tammy Mason

Olivia’s “neat” doctor receives important research award

Olivia Mason’s favorite sport is swimming. The 11-year-old Bedford youngster* also likes soccer and horseback riding. Soon, when her six-month round of treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is over, Olivia plans to enjoy all three activities once more. In the meantime, she’s getting healthier – and she’s learning a little about zebrafish.

Her oncologist at the IWK Health Centre, Dr. Jason Berman, does research on blood cancers using the see-through animals. “We can use the fish to better understand the development of these diseases,” he says. “We have seen how cancer causing genes affect normal blood development.”

“The goal is to better understand how cancer develops then test different drugs to see if the cancer cells change,” says Dr. Berman.

For the next three years, Dr. Berman will have additional support in his quest for answers. As the 2011 recipient of the Peggy Davison Clinician Scientist Award, the IWK specialist will receive $100,000 per year for three years to be used as direct support for a research program. The funding may then be renewed for a second three-year period.

"Knowledge gained through research means new treatments, better access to existing treatment, earlier diagnosis and more," said Dr. Carman Giacomantonio, chief medical director, Cancer Care Nova Scotia. "We are pleased to help further Dr. Berman's research through the Peggy Davison Award. We hope his work will mean an easier journey for children like Olivia."

Olivia and her dad, Barry Mason, are both excited that Dr. Berman’s work is being recognized. “He’s pretty neat,” says Olivia. “I’d like him to help other kids.”

“We were thrilled to hear about the award,” says Barry. “Olivia believes she is going to be cured. We are all convinced of that. But our concern is for other children. If Dr. Berman can help those kids, that would make Olivia very happy.”

Dr. Berman, who is the second person to hold the Peggy Davison Clinician Scientist Award, is studying mast cell development, leukemia, and solid tumours using zebrafish as his model. His work is unique in Canada and his findings will have the strong potential to identify improved drugs for treating both childhood and adult AML.

Dr. Berman and his team were the first in the world to identify mast cell development in zebrafish. “They release chemical mediators and are the first line of defense in cancer,” he explains. “They may have a major role in determining if cancer cells spread.”

“The award is a tremendous opportunity,” Dr. Berman said. “To be able to shed light on what these children and their families are going through is so important. We will also learn about adult cancers in the process.”

"Health research is an investment in the future health of all Nova Scotians," said Health and Wellness Minister Maureen MacDonald. "Through his hard work, Dr. Berman will not only make life better for young patients, but will help provide better health care for all Nova Scotian families who are touched by this type of cancer."

For Dr. Berman, the award also highlights the vital link between research and patient care. “In the lab,” he says, “you think about helping patients in a more global way; while on the hospital ward you strive to help patients on an individual level. Being a clinical scientist provides the opportunity to find this balance and contribute in both ways.”

For Olivia Mason, it’s extra special that her doctor is also a researcher who will help other kids. Olivia, who first developed symptoms while on vacation with her family earlier this year, has just finished her second round of chemotherapy. In total, she will have five cycles of chemo over the next six months.

After the first cycle, Olivia was officially in remission. Now she is learning to walk again – a leukemic tumor on her spine was successfully removed with radiation – and she enjoys her time at home from the hospital when she’s well enough. “She’s had a tough course,” says Barry. “When she has chemo her white blood cell counts can go down to zero and she is prone to infection. But she’s getting stronger all the time. It’s wonderful to see a smile on her face.”

Now Olivia is hoping Dr. Berman will help even more kids smile.



* Olivia will turn 12 in June.

The Peggy Davison Clinician Scientist Award is funded by Cancer Care Nova Scotia and administered by the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute. It  is named in recognition of Peggy Davison, CCNS’s inaugural board chair.

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