Dr. Shashi Gujar

Dr. Shashi Gujar

Dr. Shashi Gujar

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity, Cancer, Molly Appeal

Immune therapies for cancer:
Dr. Shashi Gujar finds ways to flag cancer in the immune system

A young scientist at Dalhousie Medical School is developing ways to strip cancer of its ability to hide from the immune system.

"Our goal is to develop personalized therapies that educate patients' immune systems to recognize and destroy cancer," says Dr. Shashi Gujar, an assistant professor in the departments of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology, and Biology.

He and his team are exploring how to use cancer-killing (oncolytic) viruses -- which target and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells -- to flag cancer cells to the immune system.

"When we infect cancer cells with the virus, it's like putting a transponder in the cancer cell," Dr. Gujar explains. "Now the immune system recognizes the signature of that cancer and will target and kill not just that cell but all other cancer cells like it."

Treating cancer with oncolytic viruses not only kills the existing cancer, it establishes protection against a recurrence -- especially since the virus therapy promotes long-term immunity against possibly recurring cancer, and targets cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells -- mother cells that continuously produce new cancer cells -- are extremely difficult to destroy with conventional treatments.

But viruses aren't the only tools in Dr. Gujar's toolkit. In early 2018, he and his colleagues in the United States received $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop ruthenium compounds as a means of exposing cancer cells to the immune system.

"The compunds are light-activated, which makes them ideal for treating melanoma on the surface of the skin," says Dr. Gujar. "once activated, they notify the immune system of the cancer, so it can mount a cancer-killing response."

Dr. Gujar's laboratory is also investigating the possibility of starving cancer. "Cancer requires a lot of fuel to sustain its growth, including enzymes," he says. "If we can inhibit the enzymes, for example, we can make it susceptible to destruction by treatments and the immune system."

Dr. Gujar and his team will make extensive use of high-throughput cell analysis equipment purchased through the 2018-19 Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation Fall Molly Appeal. Their work to develop cancer immune therapies will be accelerated by an improved ability to analyze massive amounts of data quickly, once they have a Molly Appeal-funded bioinformatics trainee on their team.

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