By Neale McDevitt
Michel Tremblay is running on fumes. Just three weeks into being a new father again (“my three daughters are all grown up so this diaper-changing thing feels completely new to me,” he said with a laugh), the Jeanne and Jean-Louis Lévesque Chair in Cancer Research is dealing with sleep deprivation while having to fulfill his regular hectic duties as Director of the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC).
Oh, and then there’s the upcoming GCRC Gala – a black tie affair on June 5 to raise funds for the Centre and public awareness of the vital work going on there.
Recently, Tremblay took time from this daunting schedule to talk all things GCRC with the McGill Reporter.
How did the GCRC get started?
The Centre really began some 40 years ago when [Oncology professor] Phil Gold discovered the CEA antigen [Carcinoembryonic antigen]. Today, CEA is the most widely used cancer antigen in the world and is used during treatment to detect if the cancer is coming back. That discovery paved the way for the birth of the McGill Cancer Centre.
How has cancer research changed since then?
Today, cancer research is so broad. You have everything from pyscho-oncology to clinical research to basic science that looks to understand how cells divide, migrate, invade and die.
What is the end result of all that research?
The past 40 years of research has given us an understanding of cancer that no one could have imagined. When the Cancer Centre first started, the survival rate for people diagnosed with cancer was 20 per cent. Today, the overall community of cancer researchers has raised the survival rate to 65 per cent.
One day, will someone say “Eureka!” and cure cancer?
The problem is that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of different forms of cancer. And each one of those cancers requires very specific treatments. I don’t think we’re talking cure as much as we are hoping to make cancer a chronic disease.
Tell us more about these “specific treatments.”
We are moving more and more toward individual therapies in which oncologists will identify two or three different drugs that are best for you, specifically. But we have to better understand how each drug will react to a specific cancer in every individual patient.
It sounds very involved.
Incredibly so. Today, there are about 700 compounds in clinical trial. Imagine that for each clinical trial a drug has to be tested on 300 patients.
What is the GCRC’s research mandate?
To do the best basic science possible. We don’t treat patients, but we will do good science. Ultimately, we want to understand what causes cancer, how it develops and how we can combat it – which means we are developing the tools to assess the drugs and the treatments.
How does that research translate into clinical use?
In different ways. First, we work closely with clinicians on new discoveries. We have about 40 projects ongoing between McGill hospitals and the GCRC. And we are constantly collaborating with people in the hospitals to make sure that what we are doing is useful.
That’s a big mandate.
It’s bigger than you think [laughing]. Part of our mission is also to train the best scientists and future scientists. We have about 150 students learning here, along with 40-50 post-docs from around the world.
Actually, yes. The fourth part of our mandate is to inform the public about the importance of cancer research. Without the work going on at the GCRC and at centres around the world everything stands still. Sometimes people – and even clinicians – forget about the importance of basic science. But we make important discoveries here on a daily basis.
Does the GCRC have a specific focus?
Departments have a function of teaching many different things. For example, microbiology has to teach viruses, bacteria, immunology, etc. Centres don’t have to do this – they can focus on very specific things. We have recruited in clusters. For example, we recruited in breast cancer and now we have a team of absolutely outstanding researchers who all compliment each other by bringing different expertise to the table.
Along with breast cancer, what else does GCRC concentrate on?
We have teams examining four other areas: metabolism and cancer; DNA damage, repair and apoptosis; stem cells and signaling; and embryonic development and cancer.
How important has the new Life Sciences Complex been?
Absolutely vital. When I became Director bout 10 years ago, it was immediately very clear that we needed a much better environment to conduct our research. The new facilities have allowed us to grow the GCRC to the point where today we have 25 principal investigators and some 300 people working here.
So the new home has made all the difference?
Yes, but it’s not just the new building. We were also extremely fortunate that the Goodman family made a major gift to the University on our behalf. Science now means having a large core facility that others can use as a resource – face it, not everyone can build a genomic or proteomic facility. This donation allows us to support this core facility for all our scientists, not just those in the GCRC. Because of this gift, we can do better science, publish in better journals and have a significantly bigger impact on the global stage.
Are the Goodmans hands-on?
It is very rare that donors like Morris and Rosalind Goodman come along. Most donors are happy with getting their name on the building and that’s enough. Not Morris and Rosalind Goodman. They want to do more than that because they are convinced that this Centre is doing truly important work.
What started out as them wanting to raise a little money with their friends has bloomed into the Goodman Gala – a major event taking place on Lower Campus on June 5. They convinced everyone to get involved – their friends, their family and their colleagues. McGill has supported this gala in an incredible way. [Vice-Principal of Development and Alumni Relations] Marc Weinstein and his team have dedicated people to work with the Goodman family to help organize this gala. Not only will this help raise funds for the Centre, but it will also give us the opportunity to thank some of the people who really have made a difference in oncology at McGill. It promises to be a great celebration of what basic science and oncology can offer for the future.
The inaugural Goodman Cancer Research Gala will take place on Saturday, June 5, from 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on McGill’s Lower Campus. For more details please go to http://cancercentre.mcgill.ca