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Research Highlight | June 27, 2023

A Q&A with prostate cancer researcher Dr. Amina Zoubeidi

In Canada, prostate cancer is the most common cancer affecting men (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers) and the third leading cause of cancer-related death. Despite significant advancements in research and treatment, our journey toward conquering prostate cancer is far from complete.

Dr. Amina Zoubeidi, professor and Canada research chair in Cancer Therapy Resistance at the University of British Columbia is an expert in the field of prostate cancer research. As the leader of a Terry Fox Program Project Grant, her team is receiving $6-million over six years to decipher and target the mechanisms exploited by cancer cells in order to evade therapy. They will focus on lineage plasticity (which occurs when cancer cells adapt to escape treatment) attempting to assess emergent cell plasticity earlier, develop new biomarkers and therapies, and delay or prevent disease recurrence.

TFRI reached out to Dr. Zoubeidi to learn more about her cancer research journey, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and the crucial role of collaboration and funding in advancing cancer research.

TFRI: Why did you become a cancer researcher? Was there a particular moment or experience that led to this decision?

AZ: I have a background in plant science, and toward the end of my master's program, I had the opportunity to attend a talk on cancer. The intricacies of cancer progression fascinated me, as I delved into the complex scientific concepts presented in a relatable manner. It was a transformative experience that opened my eyes to the immense potential for further discoveries and advancements in the field.

Inspired by this newfound fascination, I made the decision to pursue a PhD focused on cancer research. Fortunately, I crossed paths with a passionate supervisor who shared my enthusiasm. Under her guidance, I embarked on an incredible journey studying prostate cancer. It has been an extraordinary privilege to learn from my multiple mentors and my scientific community and contribute to the growing body of knowledge in this critical area of research.

TFRI: How has prostate cancer research progressed since the start of your career?

AZ: We have come to accept that prostate cancer is not a single disease but a heterogeneous condition. Therefore, we now stratify patients and utilize genetic testing to tailor treatments accordingly. Yet, metastatic prostate cancer patients still die with treatment-resistant aggressive disease. We are advancing our understanding of mechanisms of treatment resistance and identifying targets and novel drugs. However, the ultimate way to save lives is to conduct clinical studies, which will be particularly challenging, especially for rare phenotypes.

TFRI: What life lessons have you learned through cancer research?

AZ: Cancer research is a complex, challenging, and constantly evolving field. It encompasses various disciplines, necessitating collaboration, teamwork, and an open mind. It teaches you the importance of working together; maintaining humility; overcoming obstacles, setbacks, and failures; and cultivating resilience and perseverance.

TFRI: What inspires you to get up and do what you do every day?

AZ: Cancer research encompasses complex challenges and unanswered questions that fuel my curiosity on a daily basis. The intellectual stimulation and the pursuit of new discoveries are deeply gratifying and serve as a constant source of inspiration. Working alongside trainees and collaborators from various fields is highly motivating. The thought of making a positive impact on the lives of patients, even small, and contributing to the fight against cancer is a powerful source of inspiration that drives me to continue my work.

TFRI: Terry Fox funding prioritizes collaboration in honour of Terry’s legacy. How important are collaboration and funding when it comes to cancer research?

AZ: Collaboration allows us to combine diverse knowledge, skills, and perspectives to tackle the multifaceted nature of cancer. It facilitates the exchange of ideas, promotes innovation, and enables the sharing of resources and research facilities to accelerate discovery. Collaboration enables us to access funding opportunities and drive the translation of research discoveries into meaningful outcomes for patients.

TFRI: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the importance of funding and innovative research for prostate cancer?

AZ: Funding and innovative research play a pivotal role in advancing our understanding of prostate cancer, developing improved diagnostic tools, discovering new therapies, overcoming treatment resistance, enhancing patient care, and translating research findings into clinical practice. By investing in these areas, the Terry Fox Research Institute can continue to make significant strides in improving outcomes and quality of life for individuals affected by prostate cancer.