Racing for a cure

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Ciara Parsons, BA'15

Originally interested in breast cancer research, Trevor Shepherd, PhD, was inspired to study ovarian cancer after realizing how little was known about the disease. Now, an established researcher in the area, he is uncovering new discoveries and generating knowledge about ovarian cancer. And as London gears up for its annual London Run for Ovarian Cancer on May 14, he’s grateful for the community’s continued support of research and its awareness programs, as ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer for women and considered to be among the most serious for this affected group.

Using an in vitro model to simulate how ovarian cancer cells ‘float’ around in the abdomen, Shepherd is examining how cells from malignant tumours metastasize, or spread, and become resistant to chemotherapy treatment.

In his lab at the London Regional Cancer Program, Shepherd and his colleagues have discovered ovarian cancer cells are able to shut down a substantial portion of their metabolism and become dormant. This state of metabolic dormancy then allows the cells to essentially reprogram themselves to thwart chemotherapy efforts and continue to spread throughout the abdomen.

Shepherd aims to identify which signaling pathways and molecules control malignant cells’ dormancy so that their vulnerabilities can be targeted and killed as they’re metastasizing.

This novel discovery, where cells have activated-stress metabolism, is one that has not yet been targeted therapeutically.

“If we can find a new molecular target, it could prove to be very effective in developing therapies, treating ovarian cancer, increasing long-term survival rates and lowering patients’ chances of relapse,” said Shepherd.

In the future, Shepherd would like to collaborate with other research groups that have expertise in developing pharmaceuticals or can identify new ways of generating therapeutics for clinical trials.

Along with the development of new therapies, the introduction of detection and screening methods are also much needed, says Shepherd. Part of why ovarian cancer has such low long-term survival rate is because the symptoms, such as bloating and issues with frequent urination, are often confused with those associated with being post-menopausal, as this is the common time for women to develop ovarian cancer.

“Because women are so busy, they often brush off these symptoms and just hope that they go away,” said Shepherd. “When women finally raise a flag on their issues, it’s often too late in these instances because the cancer has rapidly progressed and spread.”

The aggressive nature of ovarian cancer also poses as an issue to researchers and clinicians working to battle this disease, since risk-detecting tests, like genetic testing which is typically used to detect harmful mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, are not always effective or applicable.

Shepherd says that because the mutations occurring within ovarian cancer are quite diverse and appear sporadically, a majority of women affected by the disease will not be able to determine through a genetic test if they have a specific gene mutation that caused their disease.

With a knack for searching for the answers to tough questions, Shepherd is motivated to continue with his research because of the widespread innovation occurring on the landscape of ovarian cancer and the relationships he has made with patients over the years.

“Having those relationships really motivates you to keep on with your research and try to make as much progress as you can with your work,” said Shepherd.