'Longer, fuller lives': Trio of graduate researchers receive funding for cancer research breakthroughs

Feb 18th, 2022

By Jeff Green

'Longer, fuller lives': Trio of graduate researchers receive funding for cancer research breakthroughs

Three graduate students are pursuing training as cancer researchers, thanks to new awards from the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI).

The funding supports projects such as developing better screening guidelines for colorectal cancer patients; the creation of an app to help treat insomnia among cancer patients; and investigating the role of novel genes in head and neck cancers.

The recipients are Kazeem Adefemi, a PhD student with Dr. Peter Wang, professor of epidemiology, Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine; Samlau Kutana, a master of science student with Dr. Sheila Garland, a clinical psychologist and associate professor, psychology, Faculty of Science, who is cross-appointed to the Discipline of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine; and Patrick Pearson, a master of science student with Dr. Thomas Belbin, associate professor and GSK Research Chair, Discipline of Oncology, cross appointed with the Division of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine.

The recipients and the titles of their research projects are below.

Kazeem Adefemi
Factors affecting colorectal cancer screening uptake and screening outcomes among older adults in Newfoundland and Labrador

Cancer of the large intestine (colon) and rectum, known collectively as colorectal cancer has become a major cause of disability and death in Canada. Today, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among Canadians and the second cause of death from cancer in men and third among women. A high incidence rate of colorectal cancer has been reported in Newfoundland and Labrador and current estimates suggest that about 540 patients are diagnosed with colorectal cancer in Newfoundland and Labrador every year. Colorectal cancer can be successfully treated if diagnosed early. Because of this, screening to detect colorectal cancer early has become the main public health strategy to minimise the effects of this cancer. As people age, they are exposed to widely different socioeconomic factors and the presence of multiple chronic conditions. This research is important because it intends to investigate whether any of these factors affect a person’s willingness to undergo cancer screening, and their chances of experiencing serious adverse effects or benefit from cancer screening. The evidence from this research can help health administrators and policy makers to design better colorectal screening guidelines and cancer interventions to reduce the cases of serious side effects and improve the benefits of cancer screening for individuals.

Samlau Kutana
User-Centered Development and Testing of a Smartphone App to treat Insomnia in Cancer Survivors

Insomnia is one of the most common and harmful side effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment, limiting recovery and quality of life. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is the recommended frontline treatment for insomnia in this population, however many cancer survivors in Canada cannot access this treatment for a variety of reasons. Mobile-phone based treatments are promising solutions because they can be delivered cheaply across a wide geographical area. However, many existing sleep apps have no evidence supporting their effectiveness. Even fewer were developed to meet the needs of cancer survivors, and apps that do not immediately capture the interest of users are unlikely to be used more than once. The goal of this project is to partner with cancer survivors to develop a smartphone-based insomnia intervention that serves their specific needs. Cancer survivors will participate in interviews to identify their requirements for an insomnia app. Data from the interviews will be analyzed and used to create a basic version of the app. Suggestions for improvement will be identified by a group of cancer survivors recruited to test the app’s usability. Following refinement of the app, a new group of cancer survivors will be recruited to test usability. This process will be repeated until users have no further suggestions for change. If successful, this research has the potential to deliver evidence-based insomnia care to people who cannot access it currently. By engaging cancer survivors directly, we will be able to meet their unique needs, maximizing the likelihood of use.

Patrick Pearson
Characterizing the tumour suppressive properties of Krüppel type zinc finger gene ZNF154 in head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers comprise a diverse group of tumours arising in the oral cavity and throat. Overall five-year survival rates are approximately 50 per cent and there is substantial variability in response to treatment and long-term prognosis. Cancers such as these often silence the expression of so called “tumor suppressor” genes as a means to confer a growth advantage to cancer cells. One such novel gene that is silenced in head and neck cancers is ZNF154. However, the function of this protein is not well understood. His project will utilize experiments trying to re-express ZNF154 in head and neck cancer and other cells, and to observe subsequent effects of this on the expression of other key cancer-related genes.

‘Calibre of research’

Each recipient is receiving studentships from the institute’s Cancer Research Training Program (CRTP), which provides stipend support over the next two years.

“Through the CRTP, BHCRI is directly supporting the next generation of cancer researchers,” said Dr. Sherri Christian, BHCRI’s new assistant scientific director in Newfoundland and Labrador and a former CRTP trainee.

Dr. Christian is also an associate professor, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, cross-appointed with the Department of Biology, as well as the Faculty of Medicine.

“Funding local trainees directly increases the calibre of research performed locally. Breakthroughs can happen anywhere and local research just might be the key that supports the next major finding in cancer treatment or prevention.”

According to the BHCRI, Memorial currently has seven trainees participating in the CRTP, which provides cancer research training opportunities for students across Atlantic Canada.

Many of those who have completed the program have become leaders in their fields, holding prestigious positions at academic institutions, in industry and in health care. Learn more here.

Cancer research support

The Canadian Cancer Society’s JD Irving Limited – Excellence in Cancer Research Fund is supporting the Memorial graduate students.

“The past year has shown us that supporting each other is what matters most. We’ve come together to look after one another — and do what it takes to keep our friends, neighbours and loved ones safe,” said Jim Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving, Limited. “This donation is about supporting cancer research that is the key to helping our loved ones live longer, fuller lives.”

The Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute exists to foster a collaborative, productive and capacity-building cancer research effort in Atlantic Canada.

Jeff Green is manager of communications in the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He can be reached at jeffg@mun.ca.