Meet the Team Canada of Cancer Research: A Q&A with Dr. Sherri Christian

Dr. Sherri Christian is a cancer researcher and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and one of the leaders and driving forces behind the Atlantic Cancer Consortium.

Dr. Sherri Christian is a cancer researcher and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and one of the leaders and driving forces behind the Atlantic Cancer Consortium, which unites researchers and clinicians from institutions in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI as part of the MOHCCN.

Her innovative research focuses on two areas: how fat cells interact with breast cancer cells to drive cancer metastasis, and the development of liquid biopsies to detect cancer through blood samples. While these interests may seem, on paper, to be rather different, they boil down to a similar goal: to find ways to advance early detection and treatment, so cancers can be eradicated before they metastasize and become more deadly.

We spoke to Dr. Christian to learn more about her research, her motivations, and how she hopes the Network will improve the landscape of cancer research in Atlantic Canada and beyond, and how this will help improve outcomes and quality of life for cancer patients across the country.

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

My first summer job in university was in a lab that developed antibodies to target cancer, so I have been interested in cancer research for a while. However, I got sidetracked during my BSc when I got interested in studying Immunology and I didn’t start working on cancer directly until my second postdoctoral fellowship.

During the first few years of my career, I spent a long time learning about how immune cells work and how they interact with other cells in their immediate surrounding to do their job, but as my career progressed, I have become more interested in learning about these processes in cancer cells. Understanding how cancer cells take advantage of the normal cellular machinery is an important challenge that we need to solve to get closer to a world without cancer. I also knew that I wanted to make a difference to as many people as possible with my research and, because cancer affects 2-in-5 Canadians, research into the control of cancer can help a lot of people.

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?

For a long time, I mostly thought about cancer in an academic way. However, as I get older, I have more and more friends and colleagues that have been diagnosed with cancer. One friend passed away because of their rare cancer and left behind a young family, which was heartbreaking. But some were treated successfully and have survived for many years. The reason that they survived is research. I rarely get discouraged for long, even when we encounter setbacks, because the cancer patients and survivors that I know are always in my thoughts. Just thinking about how research could make their journey easier, and potentially save people like my friend in the future, is enough for me to keep trying. Cancer research has taught me to enjoy the small successes because enough small successes build on each other to become big wins. 

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

We know that obesity is a risk factor for many different cancers, including breast cancer. That is why currently, one of the main focuses of my research, is how breast cancer cells communicate with fat cells. We’ve found that when breast cancer cells are grown with fat cells, they act in specific ways that remind us of how cancer cells change when they spread to different areas in the body, like bones. We have identified the specific compound that is released by fat cells that causes this change. We think if we can target this compound, it might reduce the spread of cancer.

Another interest in the lab is on liquid biopsies. This is where a blood sample is used to detect cancer cells located anywhere in the body. Tumour biopsies are difficult and can only be done at certain times while blood samples can be collected frequently. If we can use liquid biopsies to detect the level of cancer within a patient, we can better detect and monitor cancer progression and treatment.

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

Cancer is the deadliest when it is caught late. This is because the cancer has grown and spread to other parts of the body, which is called metastasis. There are currently no treatments for metastasis. I hope that if we can identify compounds, specifically proteins, that can be targeted to block metastasis, we could stop cancers from spreading.

My interest in liquid biopsies is because these tests might be able to tell us earlier on if a cancer was starting to spread. Early detection and prevention of metastasis would allow doctors to treat the cancer before it spreads, which will directly improve patient outcomes. Also, targeted approaches to block metastases should come with fewer side-effects than radiation or chemotherapy.

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?

Establishing the network has brought together researchers from across the country under a common goal in a way that has never been done before, to my knowledge, in Canada. Personally, I have never encountered this level of active sharing of information and protocols before. The sharing of information throughout the network has allowed all regions to be working to the same gold standard. This is extremely important as it is critical that all Canadians are represented in the final high-quality dataset. These data will give researchers the ability to pinpoint trends or gene signatures that can then be used by oncologists to personalize treatment. The network is building the foundation for how precision medicine can be done across Canada and how it can, hopefully, be implemented as standard of care. There is a saying that “a high tide floats all boats” and that is what the MOHCCN has done for cancer research in Canada.

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

Data from Canadian cancer patients deserve to be included in the data that is used to understand how cancer arises and progresses. Large high-quality datasets are required for these powerful analyses. However, a large high-quality dataset that represents Canadians from coast-to-coast does not yet exist. The MOHCCN is changing that. This will allow researchers and clinicians from across the country to learn from each other to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in Canada. The Canadian health care system is fragmented but the MOHCCN is allowing researchers to work across jurisdictions. The paths that are created within the network will lay the foundation for being able to work across the country to directly impact patient care.

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

When I think about Terry Fox, I think about the passion that he brought to his cause. His desire to unite Canadians was idealistic but also visionary. Thinking of one young man who brought his message to an entire country, nearly 45 years ago, is inspiring to me. Canadians have rallied around Terry’s cause because, although it is ambitious, curing cancer will impact so many Canadians and their families. Through research, a cancer diagnosis, in many cases, is no longer a death sentence. The MOHCCN hopes to carry on Terry’s vision so that all cancer diagnoses come with the hope of a cure.

"I rarely get discouraged for long, even when we encounter setbacks, because the cancer patients and survivors that I know are always in my thoughts."