Ryerson Alumni - Summer 2019 - 27

FEATURES

THE ART OF THE
CURE

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SCIENCE PROFESSOR'S

COLLABOR ATION WITH DIGITAL
MEDI A R ESEA RCHER PRODUCES
A BIG-PICTURE LOOK AT CANCER
R E S E A R C H.
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By C O N N I E J E S K E C R A N E

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF SARAH SABATINOS

T

here's no getting around it, the statistics are
chilling. According to Canadian Cancer Society
figures, in 2017, an estimated 5,500 Canadians were
diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Of those, 4,800 ultimately died from the disease.
From her state-of-the-art lab in downtown Toronto's
MaRS Discovery District, Sarah Sabatinos, a professor in Ryerson University's Department of Chemistry
and Biology, is seeking to improve those terrible odds.
Sabatinos and her team of molecular science students
are analyzing DNA replication models, seeking to
understand where chemotherapy treatment could be
improved-particularly for high-mortality types like
pancreatic cancer.
With pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy treatment is
tripped up by cancer cells' adaptability, says Sabatinos.
Her team's recent project focuses on gemcitabine, a
drug Sabatinos says is critically important for pancreatic cancers, as well as several other cancers.
"It's one of the few options, but the problem is, initially a lot of the pancreatic cancers respond to gemcitabine, but then later they become resistant."

<

Fluorescent protein markers detect DNA damage
and repair in yeast cells.

The research aim, she says, is to discover what contributes to the development of such drug resistance and
learn how to prevent it.
"We're trying to figure out the molecular complexes
and the changes that happen within an individual cell
and across a population, and then see if we can detect
patterns."
This research, which used yeast to examine how specific cancer mutations respond to gemcitabine, was
recently published in a paper called, "A Chromatin
Fiber Analysis Pipeline to Model DNA Synthesis and
Structures in Fission Yeast."
To hasten the progress, Sabatinos has fostered a
unique collaboration-with Ali Mazalek, who holds a
Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation,
and is a professor in the RTA School of Media in the
Faculty of Communication and Design.
In Mazalek's lab, the rich datasets generated by the
Sabatinos team's algorithms are displayed across large
wall and tabletop screens using Tangible Chromatin,
a visual analytics software suite. The technology provides dynamically multi-faceted views of replicated
and unreplicated areas of chromatin fibers with protein
distributions, which makes it easier for the researchers
to look for patterns.
The next step in this joint project will be to analyze
responses in human cancer cells. Sabatinos's team
will publish another paper soon, also related to cancer
cell mutation.
This work couldn't happen without the dedication of
graduate and undergraduate students in the Sabatinos
lab. Zohreh Kianfard is a doctoral candidate in molecular science who has spent the past four years developing a yeast-based test of gemcitabine sensitivity and
resistance.
Her work is showing how specific mutations found
in cancer can cause drug resistance. As undergraduate thesis students, Kyle Cheung, Biomedical Science
'18; Saba Zafar, Biomedical Science '18; and Gianluca
Calcagno, Biomedical Science '19, worked with
Kianfard and made essential contributions to the project. Cheung and Zafar are now master of science students in the Sabatinos lab.
A second undergraduate success story is that of
Kazeera Aliar, Biomedical Science '18. After declaring
an interest in computational biology, Aliar, Sabatinos
and Mazalek worked together to create the new interactive data program called "Tangible Chromatin." Aliar
successfully finished her undergraduate thesis on this
project in the Sabatinos lab, and is now working in a cancer research lab at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Beyond improving drug treatment, new discoveries
about what causes mutant cells to replicate-or not-
will potentially affect disease prevention as well. As
Sabatinos explains what's ahead for her research, "If a
cell or person has that mutation, what does that mean?
What can we do to prevent a problem like cancer from
developing?"
Summer 2019 / Ryerson University Magazine

27



Ryerson Alumni - Summer 2019

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