Hey Georgian Life readers! Two years ago, I was at Side Launch brewery with my dad, Colin Kent, when we bumped into Sal Greco, sales specialist at Georgian Life Media. While enjoying a delicious IPA and discussing my career in cancer research, Sal asked me to write an article for Georgian Life about my work, which I enthusiastically accepted. Two years and twenty-three articles later, working with Selena Blais, Georgian Life Media owner, and her team, the Cancer Chat has found its voice and been received with pronounced enthusiasm. I am sincerely grateful to all the brave souls who willingly share their stories of perseverance dealing with cancer. 

When I began writing the Cancer Chat, my wife Helen and I were both cancer research associates at the University Health Network in Toronto. Helen’s research focused on finding cellular vulnerabilities in ovarian cancer. Her work led to the identification of a cell surface receptor essential for ovarian cancer survival. When the receptor was blocked with a therapeutic antibody she developed, the cancer cells died. Her work, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, offers a promising new treatment for ovarian cancer.

My research focused on an oncogene called KRAS, which is mutated in >95% of pancreatic cancers. One aspect of my research found mutant KRAS drives uncontrolled cellular proliferation via modulation of transcription factors, such as RREB1, which regulate growth genes in the cancer cells. Based on my expertise with RREB1, I was contacted by a clinical geneticist at SickKids who identified a boy missing one copy of the RREB1 gene. The boy did not have cancer but has a rare and undescribed developmental disorder presenting with intellectual disability, short stature, and facial dysmorphia. Over the next couple of years, I discovered that loss of RREB1 in the boy’s cells changed how hundreds of genes are turned on or off, causing developmental abnormalities. Thus, like the cancer cells, the cells from the boy had hyperactivated RAS but, caused by loss of RREB1, not by RAS mutation. This research was published in Nature Communications in late 2020. 

When the COVID outbreak emerged in early 2020, the labs at UHN, like everything else, were shut down. With an uncertain future in academia, Helen began applying for more stable research positions. In April 2020, she interviewed for a Senior Scientist position at a prominent pharmaceutical company in Montreal called REPARE Therapeutics. REPARE focuses on discovering genes that function in tandem with loss of known tumor suppressor genes found in cancer cells. REPARE’s drug development initiatives center on a genetic screen called synthetic lethality, where the inhibition of one gene combined with loss of a second gene exposes a lethal combination that can be targeted therapeutically. Helen was offered and eagerly accepted a position with REPARE, and we moved to Montreal in August 2020.

I spent a few months combing through scientific job boards initially with discouraging results. However, one day on LinkedIn, I read a story about a multi-million-dollar government infusion to develop a new Canadian venture called adMare (pronounced ad-mar-eh) which merged the existing Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) in Vancouver with the NeoMed Institute in Montreal. The resultant adMare BioInnovations was established with the mandate to create and scale small Canadian life sciences ventures and train the next generation of Canadian scientists. The initiatives at adMare translate leading academic research into new Canadian life sciences companies.  

After reading the press release, I immediately emailed the CSO of adMare expressing my interest and describing my expertise. A few months later, I was hired as Senior Scientist to develop a neurology platform at adMare in Montreal. My new role is to create a cell-based platform using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) to study the treatment of neurological diseases. The iPSCs, like embryonic stem cells, are pluripotent, meaning they can generate any cell type in the body. The iPSCs are derived from the skin and can be reprogramed into neuronal cells found in the central nervous system. Over the next year, I will be employing protocols to grow brain cells in a dish as a paradigm to study neurological diseases and, hopefully in the process, create new Canadian ventures. Stay tuned Cancer Chat readers; as always, I will keep you posted!

Submitted by: Dr. Oliver Kent, Cancer researcher and Senior Scientist at adMare BioInnovations.  

Do you have an idea or question you would like to read about in the Cancer Chat? Email (kent.uhn@gmail.com) or text (438-874-6546) and let me know!