Cells adapt to stress in order to survive. When stress comes in the form of starvation, they work to sustain themselves.

This response is called autophagy, when cells slowly eat parts of themselves until more nutrients are available. But autophagy can also be hijacked by cancer cells to increase tumour growth and aggressiveness.

During chemotherapy, cancer cells change. In some cases, they can survive treatment and autophagy may be part of what enables them to do so.

Dr. Trevor Shepherd, Translational Oncology Scientist at the London Regional Cancer Program, and his team are exploring whether autophagy is needed for ovarian cancer cells to become chemo-resistant. Their findings may contribute to improved treatments that overcome resistance to chemotherapy.

“We’re resurrecting work that a student in my lab made great progress on a few years ago,” says Dr. Shepherd. “It’s exciting for me to be able to think about it again and to get people in my lab focused on this so that we can see some real impact.”

Dr. Trevor Shepherd

Why now? Dr. Shepherd recently received funding by way of the Pat McDonald Research Award, part of an operating grant co-funded by Ovarian Cancer Canada and the Cancer Research Society.

With funding for the next two years, he plans to determine which parts of the autophagy response are required for ovarian cancer cells to survive chemotherapy. He and his lab team will look at different ways of blocking the response, and analyze tumour samples from patients being treated for ovarian cancer.

Results of this new project stand to support development of a Phase I clinical trial for women with late-stage ovarian cancer, so Dr. Shepherd’s team will work closely with clinical oncologists in London, ON.

Harold Albrecht, député; Donna Pepin, porte-parole bénévole; Dr Trevor Shepherd

Harold Albrecht, Member of Parliament; Donna Pepin, volunteer advocate; Dr. Trevor Shepherd

Dr. Shepherd is a familiar face to many in the community as he joined Ovarian Cancer Canada on Parliament Hill earlier this year in efforts to urge MPs and federal decision makers to invest in ovarian cancer research.

“Sometimes studying this disease can be frustrating because there just isn’t enough funding coming in to enable scientific progress,” he says. “But because of this award, we can actually take our work to the next level and figure out whether clinical trials can begin.”

“When I saw the award was co-funded by Ovarian Cancer Canada, it became all the more meaningful because this support is coming from people like me who see the gap in research dollars and make decisions to pitch in donations.”

This year, two operating grants are being provided by Ovarian Cancer Canada in partnership with the Cancer Research Society. Stay tuned to learn about the other grant, which was awarded to one of the co-chairs of the Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope.

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