Imagine you spot a weed growing in your favourite flower bed. Annoyed, you take a pair of sheers and chop it off. For days, you feel great. The weed seems to be gone and your flower bed looks amazing. But a week later, when you return to tend to it, reality hits: not only has the weed grown back but your flower bed is overrun by dozens of similar growths.
Cancer can act in a similar way. In many cases, current therapies are very effective at removing a tumour, which is the equivalent of cutting the leafy part of the weed that sits above ground. But unless the roots of the cancer are removed entirely, there’s a chance the cancer will return with a vengeance, overrunning our bodies.
“There’s a type of cell known as a relapse initiating cancer stem cell which has been found to be the root from which cancer grows back after initial treatment,” explains Dr. Courtney Jones, a scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. “These cells have specific mechanisms that help them survive current cancer treatments, and in order to prevent cancer recurrence, we need to find ways to target these cells more effectively.”
Like with a weed, one of the ways to kill a cancer’s “root system” is to starve it of nutrients, which is what Dr. Jones will explore over the next three years after being named the recipient of the inaugural Dr. Victor Ling Terry Fox New Investigator Award. This award, named after TFRI’s founding president and scientific director, distinguishes the highest ranked Terry Fox New Investigator of the year, providing them with $450,000 to undertake high-quality cancer research in close collaboration and mentorship with a Canadian cancer research group.
As part of her project, Dr. Jones will receive mentorship from a world-leading team of cancer stem cells researchers whose work is also funded by the TFRI. Together, they will determine ways to starve relapse initiating cancer stem cells by targeting specific metabolic pathways that allow these cells to create the energy and nutrients they need to survive. Specifically, the project will focus on a protein called ACOX1, which preliminary data suggests is critically important in regulating a metabolic pathway that has been found to play a crucial role in providing leukemia stem cells with the energy they need to survive chemotherapy and drive recurrence.
“The goal of my project is to better understand how this pathway works and find ways to perturb its function to make relapse initiating cells more sensitive to current therapies,” explains Dr. Jones.
While the project will focus on acute myeloid leukemia, Dr. Jones believes that that this specific metabolic pathway plays a crucial role in the survival of cancer stem cells in solid tumours, suggesting that finding ways to target it could prove to be beneficial for patients with other cancers.
“Ultimately, if we are successful, we will determine if targeting ACOX1 is a viable therapeutic strategy to target the specific cancer cells that cause therapy resistance and disease relapse in leukemia and other cancers,” says Dr. Jones. “This approach could potentially lead to new therapies designed to prevent relapse disease from occurring that would greatly improve the outcomes for many cancer patients.”