Culture of collaboration draws top talent to U of A's cancer research hub

Amir Bukhari seeks to minimize cancer mortality with support of Alberta Cancer Foundation's Dr. Cyril M. Kay Graduate Studentship.

Kirsten Bauer - 04 December 2018

In spite of Edmonton's frosty climate, Amir (Amirali) Bukhari, PhD student in the Department of Oncology, says that the University of Alberta is a hotbed for breast cancer research and the "best place" for him to pursue his research. He was drawn to Edmonton from India in 2016 to work with supervisor Armin Gamper, assistant professor of oncology and Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA) member.

CRINA at the forefront of new breast cancer therapies

Before joining Gamper's lab, Bukhari completed his master's degree in India, where he worked in the lab of Abhijit De at the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research, and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Tata Memorial Centre (TMC), one of Asia's premiere cancer hospitals.

"My previous research was also focused on breast cancer and I loved every aspect of it. I wanted to go to a place with a better infrastructure and state-of-the-art facilities so that I could pursue high-impact research. The University of Alberta was just that for me. Dr. Gamper's research fit exactly with my previous experience. I was very lucky."

Bukhari is considering medical school to become a clinician-scientist after completing his PhD. Regardless of his career path, his passion for cancer research motivates him and makes the journey worthwhile.

"A lot of people come to the lab with the expectation that cancer research is like in the movies, which is a misconception that needs to be clarified. Research advances in steps, not in leaps. It is about curiosity, about wanting to find the answer to questions which invariably will lead to more questions," he said.

"Ninety-five per cent of the things that you're doing are not ever going to make it to the clinic, but will provide insight into the 'big picture,' into the basis of the disease. Even if the work leads to a clinical trial, cancer is so complex that still many approaches can fail in the patient. Cancer research is all about patience and the will to overcome these roadblocks."

Alberta Cancer Foundation's Dr. Cyril M. Kay Graduate Studentship

Amir Bukhari is the 2018 recipient of the Alberta Cancer Foundation's Dr. Cyril M. Kay Graduate Studentship, named in honour of Cyril Kay, professor emeritus of biochemistry. To date, there have been 14 trainees from across Alberta whose cancer research programs have been bolstered as recipients of this Alberta Cancer Foundation's studentship.

As Vice-President, Research of the Alberta Cancer Board from 1999 to 2008, Cyril Kay envisioned a future in which basic scientists and clinicians could easily share information and resources for a stronger, Alberta-wide network of cancer researchers. He worked diligently to secure long-term funding for cancer research, and to build interprovincial relationships. In honour of Kay's commitment, the Alberta Cancer Board and the Alberta Cancer Foundation established a graduate studentship in his name.

"I have met several of the past winners," Kay said. "The first one is now a full professor of pharmacology and a cancer researcher at the University of Manitoba, and several others have finished their PhD degrees and gone into medicine with a view of becoming clinician-scientists. It's a wonderful opportunity for people to actually be supported during a critical phase of their training."

Working towards a better tomorrow for breast cancer patients

Current breast cancer treatments, like radiation or chemotherapy, attempt to kill bulk cancer cells. Bukhari says the Alberta Cancer Foundation's Dr. Cyril Kay Graduate Studentship will help him work towards his goal of finding out why a subset of breast cancer patients experience cancer spreading or relapsing.

"Tumours are composed of many different cells sitting in different microenvironments, and therefore tumors are composed of a mixture of cells that often have different properties, including treatment resistance. Interestingly, only a small portion of cancer cells have the ability to form a new tumour if they survive treatment or metastasize. We call these tumour initiating cells or 'cancer stem cells' (CSCs). Unfortunately, CSCs also turn out to be the most difficult to kill as they are particularly resistant to radiation and chemotherapy."

Bukhari says the Gamper lab is testing out a novel strategy that involves combining two drugs to target DNA damage signaling, a process leading to irregular cell development, in breast cancer cells.

"We treated breast cancer tumours in mice with these drugs, either individually or as combination treatments. After several weeks, we noticed that the tumours shrunk with the two new drugs combined. In most cases, they even disappeared."

In about 90 per cent of patients, breast cancer mortality results when cancer spreads from the breast to other organs―a process called metastasis―so slowing the rate of cancer growth can have significant implications in improving overall patient survival.

"We are collaborating with a clinician at the Cross Cancer Institute and we are in the process of working out the details with AstraZeneca, who produces the drugs, so that we can start a clinical trial soon. It's so exciting."