Life on Campus / Spring 2016
U of T Researchers Lead Cancer-Fighting “Dream Team”

“Our knowledge is at a turning point,” says scientist Peter Dirks


Photo of Prof. Cheryl Arrowsmith looking into a microscope

Prof. Cheryl Arrowsmith. Photo by Erin Howe

Eight members of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine have joined a cancer-fighting “dream team” – a group of leading researchers who will tackle brain cancer by focusing on the stem cells that drive the growth of tumours.

“Our knowledge is at a turning point,” says Peter Dirks, a professor in the departments of surgery and molecular genetics. “In the last number of years, there have been important genomics discoveries involving mutations in cancer, and greater understanding of the types of cells that cause tumours to grow.”

Dirks, who was the first to identify cancer stem cells in brain tumours in 2003, leads the dream team, which was assembled by Stand Up to Cancer Canada. The group’s aim is to develop new treatments to extend the lives of people with the brain cancers known as glioblastoma and posterior fossa ependymoma.

Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer. The five-year survival rate for people with the disease is less than 10 per cent. The survival rate for posterior fossa ependymomas is 50 per cent.

Cheryl Arrowsmith, a professor of medical biophysics, is one of the dream team’s principal investigators. She aims to identify new ways to kill tumour stem cells or turn them into non-stem cells, which prevents the tumours’ growth.

“One of the problems with these diseases is that every cancer patient is different,” says Arrowsmith. “They have different mutations and drugs don’t work on all patients. The promise here is that we’re not only going to identify drugs or drug-like molecules that target the tumour stem cells; we’re going to be able to understand why they work.”


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