It’s out with the old and in with the new treatment options available, according to Dr. Shashi Gujar.
Dr. Gujar, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, will receive $600,000 over five years from the Canadian Cancer Society’s (CCS) Emerging Scholar Award program to explore how cancer killing viruses could potentially be used to treat and cure lung cancer — valuable research considering how an estimated 9.6 million people die from cancer every year.
The Emerging Scholar Award program is aimed at establishing and advancing promising early-career scientists and clinician scientists from across Canada with a focused commitment to undertaking cancer research. Through the CCS Emerging Scholar Award program, early-career investigators will develop their cancer research programs in Canada and pursue important scientific advances of the highest quality and potential for impact.
Dr. Gujar’s work is situated in the exciting and novel field of cancer immunotherapies; a form of precision medicine that teaches the immune system to fight cancer. These therapies have shown tremendous potential but have only proven effective in a limited number of patients. With the CCS support, Dr. Gujar and his team will be looking to alter one of cancer’s most powerful mechanisms to combat our immune system’s natural response: the tumour microenvironment (TME).
Packing a punch
In the TME, the cancer creates a toxic metabolic environment that makes it incredibly difficult for white blood cells responsible for our immune responses, known as T cells, to operate efficiently. As soon a T cell enters the TME, it is pummeled by this environment and starved of the fuel it needs to put up a fight.
“Think of a boxer,” says Dr. Gujar. “They can be very talented, but if they don’t have the proper conditioning and diet, they won’t have a fighting chance.”
Not only will the metabolic TME be altered, but to further level the playing field the cancer killing viruses will be used to teach our T cells to respond favourably in this environment, just like an elite endurance athlete training at high altitude to force the body to adapt to a lack of oxygen.
Although this project specifically focuses on lung cancer, the techniques and knowledge gained will have broad implications in the fight to reduce cancer-related deaths in Canada.
“Supporting the next generation of cancer researchers is crucial to ensuring that we continue to drive progress against cancer in the decades to come,” says Dr. Judy Bray, vice-president, research at the Canadian Cancer Society. “That’s why, thanks to our supporters, we are investing in promising young researchers like Dr. Shashi Gujar whose work could improve the effectiveness of virus-based immunotherapies for lung cancer, helping people with this cancer live longer.”
What makes the Emerging Scholar Award particularly attractive, is the $20,000 per year allocated to professional development – a significant investment that will strengthen the future of the Canadian cancer research.
“This really is an amazing opportunity for our team,” says Dr. Gujar. “This is substantial support and having this dedicated funding will allow us to connect globally and learn new techniques that we can bring back to Halifax.”
With this substantial support and extended timeline of five years, Dr. Gujar and his team are building a research program that aims to establish world-wide connections that will lead to international research opportunities.
“A cancer diagnosis used to be a death sentence,” says Dr. Gujar. “Progress has been made, but we want to get to the stage where it’s not something to fear. We’re at the cutting edge of developing new ways to treat, prevent, and diagnose cancer.”
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