New Cancer Research Initiatives in Northern Alberta | By Hanhmi Huynh

In 2004, my cousin, Tanya passed away from cancer. She taught my brother and I how to play black jack, and took my cousins and I to watch 14A movies when we were too young. She was a talented pianist, a U of A Geophysics graduate, a runner, and overall one of the bravest individuals I knew. The details of the type of cancer and how it progressed escape me, but the impact and loss it had on my family are still felt today. The details that I do remember were the hospital visits, watching pirated movies with her and then noticing my dad turning away to cry. My dad is a former soldier and all around badass; very few things move him to tears. So, to see him cry, that’s when I knew it was serious. Somehow hospital stays progressed into palliative care, into home care, a phone call in the middle of the night, an empty room, and a funeral. It was so hard, so surreal to see someone so healthy and courageous be taken away from us slowly from a painful disease.

That is why I’ve always wondered, when people do those cancer runs, sport their Movember mustaches, etc., do they think about where those proceeds go? Have they been affected by cancer in some way too? I was curious to see what the proceeds went towards and the types of cancer research taking place here on campus. The newly formed Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta had their Inaugural Research Day here in CCIS on November 15, so I jumped at the opportunity to attend. The Research Day featured oral and poster presentations from an array of faculties and departments. It highlighted the goal of the Research Day, which was to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and to discover highlights in different aspects of cancer research.

The day opened with a speech from the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Douglas Miller, who commended everyone for their commitment to research by saying “Isn’t it a testament to academia when it’s sunny outside and we close ourselves in a classroom?” It was definitely a day dedicated to research, consisting of more than 20 oral presentations and 145 poster presentations that covered a multitude of areas in cancer research, not only in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and Faculty of Science, but also from the Faculty of Engineering, Nursing, Pharmacy, Physical Education and Rehabilitative Medicine. Many of the presentations featured highly specialized research from experts in their fields, including developments in biomarkers, radionuclear imaging, gene expression and metabolism. Some of the oral presentations throughout the day that caught my attention were:

  • The Alberta Cancer Research Biorepository – A repository of open access samples of 40 different types of cancers, blood fractions from 15,000 participants and tissue from 12,000 participants available to local, national and international investigators.
  • From The Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine, Dr. Jana Reiger highlighted interdisciplinary translational research in head and neck cancer for improved patient outcomes. The institute is a joint initiative of the University of Alberta, Covenant Health and Alberta Health Services. Dr. Reiger drew attention to the growing rates of head and neck cancer, especially thyroid. In fact, the rates of head and neck cancer are predicted to surpass the rates of cervical cancer in the coming years. Dr. Reiger also mentioned to me that there has been increasing research that has linked HPV to head and neck cancers. She mentioned how imperative it is to make sure that not only girls, but boys as well, are vaccinated. You can find more information on HPV vaccinations here. The Institute itself is a leader in state of the art technology, research and clinical applications. One of the many research initiatives Dr. Reiger mentioned was the use of 3D printing for the production of customized prosthetics for head and neck cancers, the use of which would be highly proficient in both aesthetic appeal and functional outcomes for patients.
  • The last presentation that caught my attention was Alberta’s Tomorrow Project – By 2030, the number of new cancer cases will double. The Alberta Tomorrow Project is a long-term research initiative that aims to follow more than 50,000 Albertans over the next 50 years to differentiate genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that distinguish people who develop cancer from individuals who do not.

The statistics are staggering: 1 in 2 Alberta men and 1 in 3 Alberta women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. 1 in 4 Albertan’s will die of cancer. These numbers are predicted to increase. The Tomorrow Project, alongside many other research initiatives, will help change our understanding of how cancer develops, what factors play a key role in the development of cancer, and what preventative measures we could take. It was reassuring to see the investment going into cancer research and the dedication and passion each one of the presenters demonstrated; a testament indeed to the commitment to finding a cure. The thousands of regular Albertans who have signed up for the study and willingly volunteering their time was just as inspiring. It gave me a sense of hope to see that maybe there was a possibility, if not for a cancer-free tomorrow, then for a tomorrow where someone’s cousin, daughter, sister, child, friend will not lose their battle to a crippling disease.


Photo courtesy of Wanderer Online photographer Prasann Patel

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