What brings you here?


By Michelle Pucci

Walsh, Watson and Quail at the GCRC. (Owen Egan/Joni Dufour)

Three recent recruits to McGill’s Rosalind & Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC) tell us what drew them there.

For Dr. Ian Watson, who joined in 2015, it was the opportunity to work with melanoma experts across the city’s hospital networks, as well as to interact with cancer researchers from a multitude of disciplines.

Watson specializes in melanoma genomics, using computational biology and in vivo studies to look at how genetic mutations cause the disease and affect treatment outcomes. His research has already led to new insights, identifying new somatic strains in the genome linked to UV exposure.

Before coming to McGill, Watson was a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the Department of Genomic Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Up until 2011, there was no effective therapy to treat metastatic melanoma. The median survival was six to nine months for late-stage patients. Now, less than a decade later, three-year survival data shows survival rates as high as 55% for patients treated with immune therapy. Still, Watson believes the prognosis can be better. “We’ve come so far,” he says. “The melanoma research community has made a major impact on patient outcomes, and melanoma has become a model disease for how to treat other cancers.” He aims to study therapies that can be used in combination with immunotherapy.

In August 2017, husband and wife Dr. Logan Walsh and Dr. Daniela Quail made the move from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to the GCRC because they were attracted by its collegial spirit.

Walsh, who spent his early years in Montreal, is working closely with other scientists and clinicians to build a Lung Cancer Network. The brainchild of GCRC Director Dr. Morag Park, the Network will bridge gaps in lung cancer expertise by encouraging hospitals and research centres across Montreal to join forces in a process that will also involve patients.

Montreal has one of the highest numbers of lung cancer patients. “The GCRC does provide this unique opportunity to study this disease because you have a lot of patients to study, but also it’s somewhat of a moral responsibility,” says Walsh.

Walsh uses a wet lab and computational lab to sequence human tissue samples to study targeted therapies and biomarkers. He focuses on identifying the genomic mutations that promote tumours and metastasis in lung cancer patients. As he explains, lung cancer is responsible for nearly one third of cancer-related deaths, but lung cancer research remains underfunded. Survivorship is low, Walsh says, and the social factors of the disease, such as smoking, are stigmatized as personal failings.

As it is for many cancer researchers, the fight against cancer is personal for Quail. She is inspired by several family members and close friends who have struggled with the disease.

She looks at how therapies can target the cells surrounding tumours, which make up the “microenvironment.” By finding out what keeps tumours alive, she hopes to redesign microenvironments to be inhospitable to tumour growth. Chemotherapy targets tumours directly, but it can also attack normal cells that divide rapidly such as in the stomach lining, which leads to side effects like nausea. “If we can change the behaviour or composition of the microenvironment, we may be able to avoid these harsh side effects.”

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