The diagnosis of brain cancer is often seen as a death sentence. But the work being done by a young Calgary-based researcher aims to change that sentence, giving patients a better shot at long-term survival.
Dr. Wajid Sayeed, 31, is a neurologist who studies the diagnosis and treatment of nervous system diseases. He is the first recipient of the Lynne Marshall and Wayne Foo Cancer Research Clinical Fellowship, an award intended to attract world-class physicians to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary.
“Our ultimate goal is to be able to predict how each tumour will respond to different treatments. That will help us develop treatments that are tailored to each individual – and with that, we can make better treatment decisions for patients,” says Wajid Sayeed.
The fellowship is a hugely significant award, both for Sayeed and for the discipline of neuro-oncology in Canada. “[It] means there will be a consistent stream of fellows who will be able to train in neuro-oncology and build up the discipline in Canada,” says Sayeed, who is a clinical fellow in neuro-oncology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary and is also doing post-doctoral research at the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute (formerly the Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute). Through the award, “Calgary-trained neuro-oncologists will be available to provide patients with co-ordinated care tailored to their specific needs,” he says.
Sayeed conducts both clinical and laboratory research. On the clinical side, he’s collaborating with neurosurgeon Dr. John Kelly and medical oncologist Dr. Jay Easaw to determine whether cutting out larger volumes of brain tumours affects long-term survival. “We’re looking at a large series of surgical cases here in Alberta, examining imaging done on patients before and after surgery,” says Sayeed, who hopes to eventually make this research a pan-Canadian project. “We correlate that with how well the patients did in terms of their general health. Our hypothesis is that larger [removals] will be of greater benefit to patients.”
The question is not a trivial one. Many neurosurgeons believe that the more tumour they remove, the longer the patient’s life will be. However, Sayeed explains, this is a contentious issue: other neurosurgeons prefer to take a more conservative approach, in the hopes of sparing patients a potential disability that could result from surgery complications.
In collaboration with Kelly, Dr. Michael Blough and Dr. Gregory Cairncross, Sayeed’s laboratory studies brain tumour cells and is working to develop models to understand how these tumours respond to chemotherapy. “What we are doing is unique, in that we have shown a potential mechanism whereby these tumours form. This is a big question in the field, as we don’t have a good understanding of what makes a healthy brain cell turn into a cancerous one… Our ultimate goal is to be able to predict how each tumour will respond to different treatments. That will help us develop treatments that are tailored to each individual – and with that, we can make better treatment decisions for patients.”
The fellowship was instated by Calgarian Wayne Foo, in memory of his wife, Lynne Marshall, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma – the most aggressive form of brain cancer – in January 2013, and died in February 2014. “I personally, and my friends and family, felt a terrible loss with Lynne’s passing, especially given that her father had the same disease,” Foo says. “It was her wish to do some good work in trying to advance treatment of the disease.”
The Lynne Marshall and Wayne Foo Cancer Research Clinical Fellowship is a $1.5-million commitment that focuses on research into glioblastoma and related cancers of the brain at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, where Marshall and her father were treated in 2013 and 1995, respectively. In parallel with funding the Lynne Marshall and Wayne Foo Cancer Research Clinical Fellowship, Foo has committed to and completed additional fundraising, to close off the balance of Alberta’s committed portion of a national glioblastoma initiative, which supports research into the disease.