Ontario Continues Growing as a Global Leader in Cancer Research

An estimated 188,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer this year and as our population ages that number is expected to increase. Mount Sinai Hospital has attracted top international cancer researcher Dr. Daniel Schramek to fulfill the role of Kierans/Janigan Cancer Research Scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of the Sinai Health System.

Ontario’s research capacity took another step forward with the addition of Dr. Daniel Schramek as the new Kierans/Janigan Cancer Research Scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of the Sinai Health System.

 "There is an incredible density of bright, open-minded peers who are extremely welcoming and open to scientific discussions and collaborations." - Dr. Daniel Schramek, Kierans/Janigan Cancer Research Scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute.
“There is an incredible density of bright, open-minded peers who are extremely welcoming and open to scientific discussions and collaborations.” – Dr. Daniel Schramek

Dr. Schramek is an internationally-recognized researcher trained in Europe, Australia and the US. Before joining the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in April, he spent four years at Rockefeller University in New York. Dr. Schramek sat down with Catalyst to tell us why he chose to come to Ontario to advance his research.

Catalyst: What attracted you to come to Ontario and Mount Sinai Hospital?

“To be honest, I wasn’t fully aware of the incredible density and research excellence here in Toronto. Within the US, one is easily attracted to research hubs like Harvard and Silicon Valley. However, when several colleagues urged me to consider Toronto—foremost my former PhD supervisor, Josef Penninger—I started to look into this city.  After my first visit, it became very clear that this is the place for me!”

Catalyst: How do you think Ontario compares to the US research hubs you mentioned?

“The Discovery District in Toronto is on par with the top US research hubs, and it offers additional advantages for young Principal Investigators like me. In particular, I’ve found that the senior research management in this community makes efforts to grow research talent, recognizing that it takes time to develop the foundation for a solid research program.”

Catalyst: Now that you’re here, what do you think?

“There is an incredible density of bright, open-minded peers who are extremely welcoming and open to scientific discussions and collaborations. I have felt welcomed, valued and supported, and it’s clear that I will be able to quickly grow exciting collaborations with my Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute colleagues such as Dan Durocher, Laurence Pelletier, Jeff Wrana and Frank Sicherie—some of the brightest minds in research!”

Dr. Schramek’s research specializes in genomics to develop highly-specific treatments for patients with breast, bladder, and head and neck cancers. In particular, he focuses on leveraging functional genomics to treat human cancers by analyzing the exact molecular underpinnings that determine why a tumour develops. Dr. Schramek shared his insights on the value of doing cancer and genomics research here in Ontario.

Catalyst: How have the research networks in Ontario benefited your area of cancer research and genomics?

“Toronto is a huge hub for cancer genomics, with initiatives such as the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI). This opens the door for the kinds of collaboration necessary to advance science. For example, I have been in contact with Paul Boutros form the OICR, an exceptional cancer geneticist developing new computational techniques focused on predicting novel personalized treatment options for lung and breast cancer patients. Since I’m an expert in modeling lung and breast cancer tumours in mice, potential collaborations could stem from his work to test and refine his prediction in pre-clinical mouse models – it’s a perfect fit.”

New Technique for Investigating Gene Mutations

A tumour accumulates hundreds of gene mutations – but which mutation or combination of mutations initiates tumour development and controls metastases? Dr. Schramek’s work aims to answer this important question.

Specifically, he has developed a new technique to weed out the random genetic bystander mutations while identifying those that are critical for cancer. The technique uses RNA interference (RNAi), a natural process where short RNA pieces interfere and turn off the function of specific genes. These RNAi molecules are first packaged into highly concentrated viruses then injected into the embryonic sac of a developing mouse embryo using ultrasound to guide the injection needle. Dr. Schramek’s team can assess up to 300 potential cancer genes in an adult mouse in as little as five weeks.

Building on Successful Findings

Dr. Schramek’s previous research focused on Head & Neck Squamous Cell Carcinomas (HNSCCs), one of the most common and deadliest cancers, and identifying several new tumour suppressor genes. He also designed a new therapeutic strategy specifically for patients, who carry mutations in one of those new genes. Now, he is working to elucidate the driving mutations in breast and bladder cancer and will also use his unique technique to find not only genes that cause cancer, but also the genes that are required for tumour growth – essentially, the quest for a tumour’s Achilles’ heel.

His breakthrough technologies have been recognized with professional awards such as the Regeneron Innovation Award and the Alois Sonnleitner Prize for Outstanding Cancer Research by the Austrian Academy. Dr. Schramek was also named Anna D. Barker Fellow in Basic Cancer Research by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and Nobel Prize Laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn.

Generous Philanthropy Helps Build Research Capacity

As Ontario’s health research community continues to work towards our shared vision of building the best health care system in the world, finding and applying tomorrow’s cures today and contributing to the growth of Ontario’s economy, attracting international expertise such as Dr. Schramek is imperative. Top talent is attracted by a collaborative, interdisciplinary and financially secure environment. In this case, the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute was able to attract Dr. Schramek due, in part, to the generous philanthropic support from Thomas Kierans and Mary Janigan and partially matched by the Tanenbaum Research Endowment Fund.

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