Feb. 23, 2024

Vet med researcher takes transcontinental trip and transdisciplinary approach to tissue reuse

From Ukraine to UCalgary lab, Polina Kvasova works on reducing the need for animal models
A black and white photo of a sample through a microscrope
Stomach organoids nine days after isolation. Polina Kvasova

While working as a family physician in private practice and doing her PhD in cryoendocrinology at the prestigious V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in Ukraine, Dr. Polina Kvasova’s plans to complete her PhD were derailed with the Russian invasion in early 2022. With her academic works lost in the fighting, she searched for options outside of her borders. There she found Scientists Support Ukraine, a network of scientists offering international work for Ukrainian researchers.
She connected with Dr. Mark Ungrin, PhD, associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and head of the Ungrin lab. For years he had a wish to do a project on secondary-tissue use, in which unused tissues from animal samples could be repurposed for other research projects. After a rigorous interview process, Ungrin found Kvasova to be “the perfect fit” for the tissue project. 

A man in a red top smiles at the camera

Mark Ungrin

After months of preparation, she was on her first plane ride ever, leaving behind her home and her family. 

“Of course, it was scary, but it's not as scary as sitting in the basement or worrying about relatives sitting in the basement, so the trip itself went as smoothly as possible, especially when Ms. Diana Jamal-Samborski, the migration officer of UCalgary was very kind in helping me with the visa process,” Kvasova says of the trip.

Now an established member of the Ungrin lab, Kvasova has brought Ungrin’s long-running vision to life. Focusing her MSc veterinary medical sciences thesis on the innovative project of tissue cultivation and organoid creation from reused animal samples, she aims to reduce the amount of animals needed for models. Using primarily mouse tissues, as these are the most common animals used in research, she collects samples from other laboratories at the university that would otherwise be used for only one project.

A woman in a lab coat sits in front of a machine

Polina Kvasova

Kvasova cultivates cells extracted from this tissue to create the organoids — clusters of cells which are capable of self-organization into a three-dimensional, in-dish version of their tissue of origin. It’s not a complete “organ-in-a-petri-dish,” but rather a microscopic mass of cells which imitates the behaviour of the tissues that make up the original organ. 

To the naked eye, they look like tiny grains of sand in water. To Kvasova’s eye, it is the stomach, or colon, or intestinal sample that she can now test to see if a drug works, or to assist with a transplant not being rejected.

“Since they’re capable of completely or partially repeating the behaviour of the organ which the cells originally came from, they’re a useful material for use in research, from drug screening, to stem-cell therapy, to transplantation,” Kvasova explains.

In addition, organoids cultured will be shared with other laboratories with expertise in the different tissue types. Not only will this offer Kvasova the opportunity for outside feedback on the quality and effectiveness of her organoids, but those labs will also have the additional tissues at their disposal for further experimentation.

The opportunities for improvement are endless. Not only would success in this research reduce the number of animals needed for research, but “in the future, scientists can hope to significantly reduce the number of animals used in research, because it is possible to test the effectiveness of drugs and reproduce the development of cancer, infection, or genetic mutation on organoids,” says Kvasova.

A black and white image of a sample through a telescope

Stomach organoids 24 hours after isolation

A black and white photo of a sample inside a telescope

Stomach organoids 4 days after isolation

In 1959, Russel and Burch presented the “three R’s” of humane research. This standard emphasizes the reduction of animals used; replacement of animal models; and refinement (welfare) of their care. Kvasova is specifically looking to first reduce the amount of animal models needed by using more tissues from each animal, and then to replace them with other tissue samples, such as organoids.

With her background in medicine, she has already been successful in cultivating the cells of the gastrointestinal tract, stomach, small intestine and colon. As she gains experience and the research knowledge grows, her goal is to extend her work to encompass all parts of the body.

Looking down the road, Kvasova hopes to continue her time at UCalgary. “My dream is to continue my career in research and be able to help humanity by discovering something new and useful. I’m very optimistic about the trajectory of using secondary tissues to create organoids and to become a pioneer in this field.”

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.