In Depth: Olena Morozova

Living in Santa Cruz, it can be easy to forget that we have a world class research institution right in our backyard. If you don’t interact with the University on a regular basis, you may not realize that there are BIG (we are taking gigantically important) things happening up at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). For instance, you may not know that UCSC is currently ranked 4th in the world for research influence, as measured by the number of times UCSC faculty’s published work is cited by scholars around the world. You may also not know that there is a team up at UCSC who is taking on pediatric cancer. We sat down with Olena Morozova and David Haussler to learn more about their big thing: the Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative, which is working to better understand and better treat cancer in children.

Please introduce yourself and describe what you do. 

My name is Olena Morozova and I am the Founder & Scientific Lead at the Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative.

I’m David Haussler, I’m Director of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute and have been a professor at UCSC for many, many years.

What is the Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative?

Olena: The Goal of the initiative is to bring new hope to children with difficult to treat tumors through genomic analysis.   

Why did you start Treehouse?

Olena: I have been interested in pediatric cancer research for many years. After moving to Santa Cruz, I met a staff member whose daughter Aurora was finishing her treatment for neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma was exactly the type of cancer I was studying during my PhD. To honor Aurora’s journey, I along with other colleagues started a fundraiser for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. The whole campus got involved in the fundraising and we ended up raising $12,000. Seeing how dear this cause was to the community, David Haussler encouraged us to do more with all of our brainpower and data on campus. We already had a lot of adult and childhood cancer data at our disposal, so we decided to try to do something with the data to make an impact. With my expertise in pediatrics & others’ expertise in big data, we joined forces to start the Treehouse Initiative.


What’s your role at Treehouse and why did you get involved?

David: I got involved at Treehouse because it was a compelling idea. The idea was brought to me by Olena Morozova who’s been the inspiration for Treehouse. When she got to Santa Cruz, we were doing research with a long cycle; it could take up to 10 years before our work could affect what happens in the clinic. Olena was frustrated and wanted to do something that would impact the now. So, she conceived this project, which we now call Treehouse. Her idea was to do genetic research with all the genomic and clinical info we could gather on every kid who had a cancer that was untreatable, and what we learned would be communicated directly to the doctor treating that child. This project has a chance of having an effect now, and this has energized our group like no other project. I can definitely say there’s not an undergraduate or graduate student who isn’t moved and motivated by the experience of being involved in Treehouse. 

"It’s a profound experience to think that what you’re doing is not just abstract, but it will make a difference in someone’s life today." — David Haussler

Can you explain the International Human Genome Project? 

David: Santa Cruz played a key role. There was a time when a huge public effort to sequence the human genome was racing against a private effort, funded by a company named Solera. We at UCSC stepped in at the critical moment, working with the public effort to sequence the human genome, and piece together all the strands of DNA into one coherent first draft of our human genetic heritage. Because we made that contribution, we were very honored at Santa Cruz to be the first one to post the human genetic message on the internet. We did this free and open, which was one of the big issues with the private company, who was going to patent genes and charge a subscription fee for scientists to look at our own human genetic heritage.

What is Treehouse’s relationship to UCSC and the International Human Genome Project?

Olena: Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative is a pediatric branch of the UCSC Genomics Institute. This newly formed institute focuses on solving health and biology problems using genomics. 

What is it about Santa Cruz that you think prompted the Treehouse Initiative?

David: We’re not afraid to tackle anything. We always go for big questions and big issues and we have a way of finding new perspectives on things. We at UCSC really are very effective at punching more than our weight in terms of having effects on the great scientific questions and the great social issues of our time. 

Olena: Santa Cruz is the only place I can think of where Treehouse could be developed, for several reasons. First, UCSC has unprecedented leadership in open genomics and big data analysis. There is no other institution that is so well-known and vocal & also has so much expertise. Second, we have a very dedicated & passionate community, which is really what inspired the creation of Treehouse in the first place. Finally, I think it helps us that we’re not a hospital. The type of research and analysis that we do, gathering data from everywhere and trying to do comparative analysis, is much easier on neutral ground here at UCSC.  

What’s the most exciting thing happening in the genomics industry in Santa Cruz? 

David: Santa Cruz is participating in some of the most exciting things that are happening in genomics today. We in Santa Cruz invented this idea of nanopore sequencing, which is now really taking the world by storm. This is a tiny little device that you can plug into your laptop and do DNA sequencing with. It’s portable. It has even been in the space station. It’s really an extraordinarily disruptive technology that will change the way we think about DNA.

The other project is the Treehouse project. We take our research on genomics and apply it directly to a pressing problem in our society, which is the problem of kids who have cancer and don’t respond to the standard of care. We bring genomic information, that otherwise would not have been available, to the treating physicians, which gives them new opportunities and a new angle on a case that might otherwise have seemed hopeless.

What opportunities do you see here?

Olena: I think there are great opportunities for the genomics industry in Santa Cruz. Already we have seen a couple of companies that were spun out from this university: Dovetail Genomics, Nantomics, Five3 Genomics, and several others. Because of the amazing computational expertise we have on campus, many students end up starting their own companies in Santa Cruz. 

Treehouse Sign
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Do you have other working relationships within Santa Cruz?

Olena: We have a relationship with a company, Nantomics, which was a spin-out from UCSC. These were former students who first started Five3 genomics. We started a collaboration with them as part of one of the clinical trials that are part of Treehouse. They’re providing us with genomic data and we’re contributing our analysis of the patients. We’re all working together, which is great.

What progress has Treehouse seen in the treatment of childhood cancer?

Olena: We’ve been very excited at Treehouse to be able to contribute analysis that could affect patient care. UCSC doesn’t have a medical school and we at Treehouse don’t necessarily have medical training, but we do have genomic training and expertise, and being able to provide analysis that actually benefits patients has been so inspiring to us. We have observed that our analysis is able to provide new treatment directions to children who are out of treatment options. We are giving new hope to these families that otherwise would be out of treatment options. And time will tell if some of those will actually translate to cures. We are hopeful and are working towards it.

Anything else you would like to add about Santa Cruz or the Treehouse initiative?

Olena: I really like Santa Cruz. I’ve lived here for over a year, but I already feel at home and like I’ve connected with a lot of people. I think people think outside of the box here and everybody feels like they fit in, even if they’re different. I think that’s great. You can just be yourself. You can express your ideas freely, and nobody is going to laugh at you when you say ‘I’m going to cure cancer’ because people say ‘let’s do it.' So, that’s what I love about Santa Cruz, people are very supportive and not afraid to think outside of the box.

MORE ABOUT Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative:

The UCSC Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative enables sharing of pediatric cancer genomic data. But more than that, it makes it possible to analyze a child’s cancer data against both childhood and adult patient cohorts across all types of cancer. This “pan-cancer” analysis of adult and pediatric tumors may identify situations where an adult drug is predicted to work on a subset of pediatric patients.

Learn more at

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