Trainee Q&A: Allison Dilliott, MSc Candidate

Allison Dilliott, MSc Candidate, is working with the Ontario Neurodegenerative Disease Research Initiative (ONDRI), focused on genetically characterizing the diseases under study through rare variant analysis. Dilliott is a trainee with the Department of Biochemistry, and is supervised by Dr. Robert Hegele.
In this Q&A, she discusses her current research focus, being part of the ONDRI study, and her lab environment at Robarts.

What does your research focus on?
I work with ONDRI and I’m part of the genetics platform with Dr. Hegele. We’re trying to genetically characterize the neurodegenerative diseases being studied – Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal dementia and vascular cognitive impairment.
We do this using a customized panel of genes. Every patient in the ONDRI study is sequenced for 80 different genes that have previously been associated with the diseases, and I complete what’s called rare variant analysis, looking for variants that are very rare in the general population that could be contributing to these patients’ diseases.
ONDRI is a longitudinal study with about 520 patients who are being followed for three years and are undergoing multiple assessments. For my work specifically, genetics doesn’t change over time. But we might find genetic associations with how people are progressing through the disease and with the symptoms they are presenting with.

What is the impact of your research on human health?
This research is very applicable right now. With the aging population, neurodegenerative diseases will grow in prevalence in the next several years, and there aren’t many reliable treatments available.
One of the main goals of our genetic team is to not only find targets for treatment, but in the shorter term, to develop early diagnostic tools. If we could complete a genetic test on someone who’s starting to show even slight cognitive impairment, it will allow for more accurate diagnosis and targeted interventions.

How will a genetic test help diagnose neurodegenerative disease?
Our hope is that in the future a family physician would be able to order a genetic test on a panel of genes associated with these types of diseases.
With the genetic analysis, we’d be able to see if there was a rare variant specifically causing the disease. This could be one, very rare pathogenic variant or it could be a couple of pathogenic variants working together. Then depending on what that gene is, it would influence the individual’s pathology.
Results would then be sent back to the family physician to confirm clinical diagnosis, and if interventions specific to that genetic variant are available, they can implement those in the treatment plan. They can also rule out interventions that might not work for the specific individual based on the variants they have. Family members may also be offered genetic testing to see if they have inherited the pathogenic variant and will be at risk for developing the disease later in life.

What is your education and research background?
I’m originally from the Chatham-Kent area, and attended high school in Chatham. I completed my undergraduate degree at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in the medical sciences program with a specialty in biochemistry and pathology of human disease.
I started working with Dr. Hegele in my third year as a volunteer, and continued in the lab throughout my undergraduate studies. I got to know the work and loved the genetics field, so I decided it was a great environment to be a part of.
Traditionally, Dr. Hegele works in lipid genetics, so when I first came to the lab, I was introduced to the lipid genetics side of things, but then I met Sali Farhan, one of Dr. Hegele’s PhD students at the time. Sali took me under her wing, as she handling ONDRI on her own. She trained me and got me ready to take responsibility for the project.

How would you describe your lab environment at Robarts? 
Dr. Hegele fosters a really fun and collaborative lab environment. There’s a number of graduate students in the lab at the moment. We have quite a few undergraduate students as well, and we have the opportunity to mentor and teach them. Because there are so many of us, there’s always someone to bounce ideas off of, or just talk to when you need a break.
We’re all interested in building each other up. In order to get good results, we have to work together and we have to support each other. As soon as competition gets involved, the work moves so much slower. So by working toward a common goal, we emphasize teamwork and collaboration.

What are your education and career goals?
I’m starting the second year of my master’s degree, and in the winter term, I’ll have the opportunity to transfer to a PhD program. I am hoping to do that and complete my PhD with the Hegele lab.
I’m keeping my options open for academia or industry in the future. For now, I’m focused on the research opportunities I have as a graduate student and the people I’m meeting along the way.