We met with Irena Rebalka on recommendation of Ron Cahute of the “Stay Ukrainian My Friends” TV show that airs on Kontakt TV. He told us, enthusiastically, that he was going to meet with a future Nobel Prize winner who happens to represent the Ukrainian Canadian community, and urged us to participate in the conversation. Looking back, we can say that his enthusiasm was not ungrounded.
Irena Rebalka is a native of Hamilton and has been brought up in the local Ukrainian community represented by the UNF Hamilton branch. She is an avid Ukrainian dancer and singer, and performed for a long time with the Chaika ensemble. She now dances for another Hamilton-based dance group Kalyna (choreographer Taras Gulka).
In 2012, Irena obtained her degree in Life Sciences from McMaster University and started her Master’s programme. In September 2013, she transferred out of her Master’s into her PhD in Molecular Medicine and Pathology under Dr. Thomas Hawke. Irena’s Doctorate is now about a year away and she is only 25.
But what she has achieved in her 25 years is even more impressive. Through her research, she made a revolutionary discovery that promises to create a breakthrough in healing diabetes-related wounds. As Irena explained to us, diabetes is one of the most prevalent diseases in the world. It affects over 4M Canadians, 1.5M Ukrainians and over 600M people in the world. One of the complications that occurs because of diabetes, is an impaired ability to heal wounds. So a scratch or a cut, or a little mark on one’s foot because of a shoe that does not fit properly can turn into a chronic non-healing wound that requires amputation. What makes the wounds in diabetics even worse is that often nerve damage occurs as well, so that they may not even notice the wound. Thus, getting the wound healed as quickly as possible is very important. Diabetics are the #1 population for amputations in the world – over 70,000 diabetic amputations happen in North America alone each year. Despite the advances in the medical field in the last little while these amputations still occur, says Irena.
Irena’s research is focused towards discovering a treatment to help healing in diabetics to avoid this amputation. In the last few years, she has worked with a compound that has facilitated wound closure so that the wound can close quicker and the cells underneath the surface layer of the skin can heal. In essence, Irena took into account that, in diabetic people, apart from the elevated blood glucose and dysregulated insulin, there are other factors that are dysregulated. She looked at PAI-1, a factor that is elevated in diabetics and managed to bring it down to a normal level with a compound called PAI-039.
Irena has had considerable progress in her research: her work has shown success on cell and animal models. The testing showed that the compound causes the wounds in diabetic animals to close quicker than in diabetics that were not receiving the treatment. The next stage for the compound is a human trial, but the transfer from the study in animals to the human studies usually takes years. However, the exciting thing about the compound, which Irena is using, is that it is already approved for use in humans. This compound is currently patented by Pfizer and is used for other purposes, while the rights are expiring soon. This is why the chances of it transferring to human studies are higher and Irena is hopeful that she will see this compound through to its successful approval.
Irena hopes she can have this compound, which is currently used as a pill, repurposed as cream, “almost making it a diabetic polysporin” which would be a big coup for the medical world. She says, “It’s exciting for me to work on it because my work could help millions of people around the world, it’s exciting to be able to make my mark on the medical field.”
The story of how Irena made her discovery is interesting too. She says that someone in her lab tested that compound in muscle because muscle repair following exercise is also impaired in diabetics. That person saw that the muscle was healing faster, and Irena thought that the same effect may occur in skin healing: “I was excited to find that it did. In science, even if you don’t have results that you think are important, they add to the scientific world. I brought a bunch of different pieces of other people’s findings together to make my own ideas, which is science.”
Irena has already published her research in a global scientific journal Diabetes and has spoken with a couple of a drug research development organisations in Canada about this finding.
And on top of all that, Irena is a model. In 2009, she won the IT GIRL contest for Loulou magazine. When asked by the magazine, “If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?”, she said, “Loving.” As a conclusion, we can only provide Ron Cahute’s words that he said to Irena at the end of his interview: “From all the interviews I’ve done, I think this one is the greatest because you and your work are going to affect the world.”