Re­searchers in­spired by Terry Fox

Waterloo Region Record - - EDITORIALS & COMMENT - Mukund Ghavre Mukund Ghavre is a chem­istry re­searcher at Brock Univer­sity, where on Sept. 17 he will step away from his re­search long enough to par­tic­i­pate in the an­nual Terry Fox Run.

While the ear­li­est re­ports of can­cer chemo­ther­apy date back to the se­cond half of the 19th cen­tury, se­ri­ous re­search around chemo be­gan in earnest dur­ing the Se­cond World War, 1939-45.

Since then, thou­sands of an­ti­cancer agents have been pre­pared and tested against var­i­ous strains of the dis­ease. Some of these are nat­u­ral prod­ucts, oth­ers are syn­thetic (man-made) com­pounds de­vel­oped from nat­u­ral prod­ucts.

Sim­ply put, can­cer is the un­con­trolled growth of an­i­mal cells.

Can­cer is not one dis­ease. The word is a loose term used to de­scribe a group of more than 200 dis­eases. That means ev­ery type of can­cer is dif­fer­ent, there­fore their causes can be dif­fer­ent and, thus, their treat­ments will be dif­fer­ent.

Like­wise, dif­fer­ent types of can­cers will in­ter­act dif­fer­ently with the an­ti­cancer drugs. This cre­ates a hur­dle in find­ing one ef­fec­tive drug against can­cer. Ad­di­tion­ally, drug re­sis­tance shown by can­cer stem cells, or the as­ymp­totic and metastatic na­ture of ma­lig­nant can­cer, pose dif­fi­cul­ties in can­cer treat­ment.

Nor­mal cell growth is a nat­u­ral process where spe­cific genes in­trin­si­cally carry in­struc­tions for cell divi­sion and growth. But some­times, due to some fac­tor or ex­po­sure that has been in­tro­duced (per­haps smok­ing, ra­di­a­tion, viruses, can­cer-caus­ing chem­i­cals, obe­sity, hor­mones etc.), ge­netic mu­ta­tions oc­cur and cell growth is out of con­trol.

Cells nor­mally have built-in mech­a­nism to deal with such prob­lem; they try to re­pair their own un­con­trolled mu­ta­tions. But when the nat­u­ral re­pair mech­a­nism fails, un­con­trolled ge­netic mu­ta­tions oc­cur, giv­ing rise to more and more of the same type of cells. These cells keep grow­ing, and even­tu­ally cre­ate tu­mour.

The drugs used in chemo­ther­apy en­ter into the cell, and ei­ther stop cell growth or kill it. But be­cause these drugs can also at times af­fect healthy cells, a process called tar­geted ther­apy was in­tro­duced in can­cer treat­ments. In tar­geted ther­apy, drug mol­e­cules are spe­cially de­signed to iden­tify can­cer cells, so that they can se­lec­tively bind to dis­eased cells only. The drugs then act on the mol­e­cules/chem­i­cals re­spon­si­ble for can­cer cell growth, and stop the cell mul­ti­pli­ca­tion.

In a project funded by the Terry Fox Foun­da­tion, I work with a Brock Univer­sity re­search team — led by chemist and Tier 1 Canada Re­search Chair To­mas Hudlicky — that has been striv­ing to de­velop more ef­fec­tive syn­thetic drugs that will im­prove the out­comes of tar­geted ther­apy. The po­ten­tial drug mol­e­cule de­vel­oped in our lab will be teth­ered on to spe­cific pro­teins that can iden­tify can­cer cells. Once the drug-pro­tein cou­ple en­ters a pa­tient’s body, it will seek out the can­cer­ous cells and act on them to stop their growth.

The quest for an ap­pro­pri­ate or­ganic com­pound that would bind to and de­stroy a par­tic­u­lar type of can­cer cell, while spar­ing a per­son’s healthy cells, is a long and ar­du­ous. It re­quires dili­gence and un­wa­ver­ing pa­tience for syn­thetic chemists, since hun­dreds of dif­fer­ently com­posed com­pounds must be syn­the­sized and screened in or­der to find that elu­sive “hit com­pound.”

Af­ter each fail­ure, tac­tics must be changed and fresh ideas in­cor­po­rated, then the quest starts over again. Al­though we love this job and are com­mit­ted to it, re­searchers are hu­mans, and some­times we can get de­pressed with re­peated fail­ures. At times like this, we need some­thing to pick us up and mo­ti­vate us.

One of the great­est in­spi­ra­tions of all is Terry Fox. It is ab­so­lutely breath­tak­ing to re­al­ize that this young man of 19, who had been di­ag­nosed with os­teosar­coma and had his right leg am­pu­tated, de­cided to defy the odds and stand up against one of the dead­li­est dis­eases of hu­man his­tory.

The quest for a com­plete cure of can­cer has been on­go­ing for about seven decades, and is not over yet. But at some point it will be suc­cess­fully con­cluded. There is an enor­mous num­ber of de­ter­mined peo­ple re­search­ing in this area, com­ing up with new tech­niques and ideas. Af­ter all, noth­ing is per­ma­nent in this world; and this rule ap­plies to dis­eases, too!

Think­ing about Terry gives me — gives us — the courage and en­ergy to stand again and march to­ward our goal.


Terry Fox had his dream of run­ning across the coun­try cut short when he learned that can­cer had spread to his lungs. But his Marathon of Hope lives on in the an­nual Terry Fox runs.

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