Meet the Team Canada of Cancer Research: A Q&A with Dr. Houda Bahig

As a radiation oncologist, Dr. Houda Bahig treats patients with head and neck cancers every day. That's why she knows that there's an urgent need to find better ways to personalize treatments for patients with these cancers, who currently receive “one-size-fits-all” treatments based on surface-level data such as tumour type, location and stage. 

Thanks to funding from the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network’s Clinician-Scientist Award, Dr. Bahig is doing just that. As part of her project, she’s creating a tool that uses artificial intelligence to analyze large amounts of multi-omic data. Her goal is clear: to determine the most effective treatment plan for each patient. Her research is still in its early days, but the goal is to leverage the MOHCCN’s data and Network to eventually test her tool in a clinical trial. 

We spoke to Dr. Bahig to learn more about her ground-breaking research and what motivates her to keep going. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. 

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

I became a cancer researcher because of the amazing clinicians I met early on. They showed me the impact research can have on improving patients' lives. As I learned more, I felt drawn to make my own contributions to fighting cancer. Over time, my passion for helping patients and advancing care grew stronger, motivating me to work towards better treatments and outcomes in cancer care. 

Cancer research is difficult: progress is slow and for every step forward there may be quite a few steps backwards or sideways. What inspires you to keep going? What life lessons have you learned through cancer research? 

Progress in cancer research can indeed be slow, and setbacks are a common part of the journey. Despite the challenges, what inspires me to keep going is the overarching goal of improving patient care. Cancer research is inherently difficult, from securing funding and resources to navigating the often-unpredictable path of discovery. There are moments of excitement when breakthroughs occur, but there are also disappointments along the way. What personally drives me forward is constantly reminding myself of the purpose behind our work: to make a tangible difference in the lives of patients. In my practice, I regularly encounter the unmet needs and challenges faced by those battling cancer. This firsthand experience reinforces my commitment to overcoming hurdles and finding innovative solutions. Also, admittedly, engaging in cancer research is deeply fulfilling on a personal level. It provides opportunities to collaborate with inspiring individuals, including mentors and fellow scientists, who share a common dedication to advancing knowledge and improving outcomes. The sense of community within the research field is a source of encouragement and motivation.  

How would you explain your current research focus to a cancer patient or their family member? 

I focus on developing and validating precision radiotherapy approaches for head and neck and lung cancer. Essentially, I'm working on refining radiation treatments to be more targeted and effective. This involves testing new technological advancements through pragmatic clinical trials in these specific cancer types. The goal is to reduce side effects while improving cancer control outcomes. Additionally, I'm exploring the integration of artificial intelligence and multi-omics (a comprehensive analysis of various biological molecules) to discover biomarkers. These biomarkers can help guide precision radiotherapy, allowing us to tailor treatment plans more accurately to individual patients' needs. Ultimately, the aim is to enhance treatment efficacy and minimize adverse effects for better patient outcomes. 

What impact do you hope your research will have on cancer treatment and the outcomes for patients?  

I envision my research making significant strides in cancer treatment by refining precision radiotherapy techniques and identifying biomarkers. Through these efforts, we aim for a reduction in treatment-related side effects and an improvement in overall treatment efficacy. By tailoring therapies to individual patients, we want to optimize outcomes, prolong survival, and enhance quality of life. 

Just like Terry Fox united Canadians nearly 45 years ago, the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is uniting researchers, clinicians, patients and administrators from cancer treatment and research institutions across Canada to accelerate precision medicine. How important is this collaboration and what impact do you think it could have on cancer research and treatment?  

The collaboration fostered by the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is crucial in advancing cancer research and treatment across Canada. By uniting researchers, clinicians, patients, and administrators, the network facilitates the exchange of knowledge, resources, and best practices, accelerating progress in precision medicine. This collaborative effort empowers researchers by supporting them in audacious and essential projects, driving innovation and personalized treatment approaches. The impact of this collaboration is significant, as it enables breakthrough research that can improve cancer care both nationally and internationally, allowing Canadians to conduct competitive and impactful research. 

If a researcher, clinician, patient or donor asked you why the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is important, what would you tell them?  

The Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is vital because it provides a unified platform for stakeholders to collaborate, share insights, and work towards common goals. This network supports researchers with the necessary resources and backing to undertake groundbreaking projects. Personally, I have been fortunate to benefit from this support, which is currently aiding my work on multiomics approaches to tailor predictions in head and neck cancer treatments. Such support is critical for achieving breakthroughs that enhance patient care and advance cancer research on both Canadian and global scales. 

What does Terry Fox mean to you? How does Terry inspire you?  

Terry Fox represents the epitome of courage, resilience, and persistence. His Marathon of Hope united Canadians nearly 45 years ago in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity and determination. On a personal level, Terry Fox inspires me both in my academic pursuits and in overcoming life's challenges. His unwavering dedication to his cause and his remarkable journey continue to motivate me and countless others. I even read Terry Fox's story to my three-year-old daughter, who loves it, and I know she too will find inspiration in his courage and determination as she grows. 

"What personally drives me forward is constantly reminding myself of the purpose behind our work: to make a tangible difference in the lives of patients."