By Kim Kattouw
Significant breakthroughs in a myriad of cancer research fields, from cell biology to molecular medicine to psychology, continue emerging since Terry Fox started his run across the country in 1980.
Though a "cure" remains elusive, an exciting, new interdisciplinary approach to cancer research at Queen's University is already having positive impacts on the research community that will ultimately translate into better outcomes for people.
The new Collaborative Graduate Program in Cancer Research at Queen's currently involves researchers in over 10 cancer research areas and 28 current graduate students. The program provides a broader awareness of how many types of knowledge and skill contribute to cancer research, It also aims to educate students and future cancer researchers about alternative approaches to their own area of expertise to better understand then treat this complex disease.
The program also works closely with the Queen's University Terry Fox Foundation Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research in partnership with the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR). The goal is to train future leaders in translational cancer research in Canada.
"Collaborative research is a completely different strategy to understanding disease from traditional ‘stand-alone' lines of research, such as anatomy or microbiology, because it focuses the tools from multiple disciplines on a single problem" explains Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine and Chair of the Collaborative Graduate Program Dr. Lois Mulligan.
"The program provides a common research ‘home' for students from very different fields to conduct their work and allows them the opportunity to establish a common language and improved communication for knowledge-sharing between disciplines."
Jessica "Jess" Hickey is PhD candidate in Pathology and Molecular Medicine who recently obtained her undergraduate degree at Queen's in Biology. Jess observes that most fields of research are going in the direction of a collaborative approach, but that this is especially important for disease research as it affects so many individuals and on so many different levels.
"If researchers can understand the disease more quickly using a variety of different approaches, we are going to be able to design better prevention strategies, detection screens and therapeutics," says Jess. "Ultimately, this will help to relieve the cancer burden on the health-care system and on patients and their families."
John Queenan, a PhD student also in the first year of the program, already has a healthy respect for the importance of a transdisciplinary approach to health science. With an undergraduate degree in sociology and a Master's degree in epidemiology, John is using both a clinical and psychosocial approach in his research to examine why oral cancer is so often diagnosed at a late stage despite the fact that it is easily detectable in its early - and often curable - stages.
This very patient-focused line of research involves carefully interviewing newly diagnosed patients about their earliest experiences and reactions to the changes in their mouth while taking into account the aggressiveness of their particular tumor.
"The main purpose of the program is to get students interacting with other fields to learn how these fields approach the same issue," explains John. No matter how advanced diagnostic techniques and treatment options are, their effectiveness is limited if the people most at risk do not seek, or are not offered, prompt medical attention. It may also turn out that the reason for so many late stage diagnoses is that these patients have rather aggressive tumors. "A cross-pollination of ideas is clearly the best approach."
As progress in the increasingly complex and competitive field of cancer research continues to evolve, the importance of collaborative research grows. As Jess emphasizes, it is impossible for one health care researcher or professional to understand and apply all of the technical tools and historical data available to make the best choice in treating a patient.
"The only practical way to work towards the ‘big picture' is through team work."