School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Piriya Yoganathan & Mathieu Crupi

Ph.D candidates, Pathology and Molecular Medicine

Piriya & Mathieu

(L-R) Piriya & Mathieu

Finding a Novel Strategy to Treat Cancer 

by Natalia Mukhina

Mathieu Crupi and Piriya Yoganathan have a lot in common – they have the same educational background, research interests, and even play for the same volleyball team. As PhD candidates, they conduct their research in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, under Dr. Lois Mulligan’s supervision, examining the RET protein and its contribution to many human cancers. The two are also involved in numerous cancer-related outreach initiatives within the Kingston community and beyond. To name just one, Mathieu and Piriya currently are co-chairs of the Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT). “This is a significant part of my life,” says Mathieu, and Piriya echoes that “raising awareness about cancer is incredibly important.”

Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Canada and is responsible for 30% of all deaths, The Canadian Cancer Society reports. Two out of every five Canadians will develop cancer during their lifetimes. “My grandmother had cancer, and it was the reason I applied to this program in cancer research,” explains Mathieu. As for Piriya, she initially worked on understanding the molecular basis of obesity and diabetes. “I was very interested in extending my research to study a different disease. Cancer has touched too many people – this motivated me to get involved in cancer research.”

Pondering the perspective of cancer research, Mathieu and Piriya argue that a “One-size-fits-all” approach no longer works in the fight against cancer. Personalized medicine in the age of genomics means the tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient. As researchers such as Mathieu and Piriya learn more about the cell changes that drive cancer, they are better able to design promising anti-cancer therapies that target these changes or block their effects.

“There are new techniques and methodologies being developed in the field,” Mathieu explains. “One example is genome editing. Another exciting avenue is oncolytic viruses. All those things will revolutionize the cancer field in the next few years.”

In a nutshell, the RET protein exists on the surface of cells in the human body, including cancer cells. RET initiates cell growth and survival, as well as cell movement. Signals from RET can help malignant cells grow and spread to distant sites within the body. As a result, the cancer cells will launch the process of metastasis, and cancer cell spreading can make the disease incurable. Exploring RET could be a way to find novel therapeutic approaches to treat cancer.

“I am working on understanding the role of RET in breast cancer,” says Piriya. “It can ultimately lead to developing novel, patient-specific treatment strategies for this invasive disease in the future.” Mathieu, conversely, is not focusing on a single cancer cell type: “I am looking at how the two forms of the RET protein move differently in the cell. Understanding how the RET forms leave the cell surface and how they can be recycled or degraded, will help us devise new ways to target the individual forms of RET.”

Asked about their Queen’s experience, the two are unanimous: Queen’s has an exceptional cancer research program and positive atmosphere overall. “There are a lot of different faculty members with diverse expertise that work cooperatively together. The Queen’s cancer research program has a very collegial environment,” says Piriya. The reason to choose the program, as Mathieu describes, is the strong sense of support and cooperation: “I love the open door policy which exists at Queen’s. People here are very collaborative and always open to hearing ideas and sharing lab resources.”

Mathieu and Piriya believe in hard work while doing cancer research. Piriya mentions persistence as an important quality every scientist needs to have in order to keep on trying different conditions and variables to see which work. “You need to be motivated,” Mathieu agrees. “It is also beneficial to have an ability to multitask, so you can have several different experiments on the go. I think luck does come to scientists sometimes when they are trying to answer one question, but then stumble onto something else very exciting.”

What else is important to succeed in research? “To be creative,” smiles Mathieu. “I like to paint every once in a while. It helps me unwind after a long day at the lab. As a scientist, I also need to be creative to design new experiments and move research forward”.

Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT)