By: Karin Olafson
Born in Saskatchewan to parents from Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago, Omene began his university career in his home province dedicated to varsity-level football. His skills playing wide receiver and safety on the field caught the eye of recruiters across Canada and the U.S. Right out of high school, Omene accepted a scholarship to play football for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. He spent the next three years training and competing at a high level.
“Being part of the Huskies was cool because you have 80 friends the first day you step on campus and you have this real identity,” says Omene. “It was a really good team, and a lot of the players caught the attention of the CFL.”
The opportunity to take football to the next level was there for Omene until a hamstring injury cut his football career short in 2010. That’s when he changed gears and decided to focus on science, completing his undergraduate studies in biochemistry. Losing his father to lymphoma when Omene was just nine years old, and thinking about cancer at the molecular level while studying biochemistry, inspired Omene to study medicine. He earned his Doctor of Medicine from the USask in 2015. He specialized in neurology before making another, somewhat untraditional career move: choosing the field of neuro-oncology.
“I think most neurologists find different interests, like stroke or epilepsy. I think, for me, I had already been thinking about cancer for a while because of my childhood experience and then because of my interest in biochemistry,” says Omene.
Omene’s research focuses on glioblastoma, or GBM, an aggressive brain tumour that is difficult to treat and often recurs. It was Omene’s desire to innovate and improve the quality of life for patients with GBM that led to his receiving the Lynne Marshall and Wayne Foo Clinical Fellowship at the Cross Cancer Institute in both 2021 and 2022. Wayne Foo, a Calgarian and the founding CEO of the oil and gas exploration company Parex Resources Inc., made a personal gift to the Alberta Cancer Foundation to fund, in perpetuity, the fellowship as a commitment to GBM research. It was created in memory of Foo’s late wife, Lynne Marshall, who was diagnosed with GBM and died of the disease in February 2014.
While Omene still maintains his skills as a neurologist, the fellowship allows him to also focus on neuro-oncology research at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute under the supervision of Dr. Jacob Easaw. One of the main areas of his research involves a clinical trial, looking at whether a drug called tamoxifen could be beneficial when GBM recurs.
“When GBM comes back, you’ve already been given standard therapy, which is surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, so there aren’t a lot of options,” says Omene. “So, we are doing a phase 3 clinical trial comparing tamoxifen to more conventional chemotherapy. Tamoxifen is not as toxic as other chemotherapies and is generally well-tolerated. Our hopes are that tamoxifen will help improve survival in patients and allow for a better quality of life.”
As part of his fellowship, Omene is also researching a brain tumour imaging sign called the T2-FLAIR mismatch sign.
“To put it simply, a brain tumour’s shape and the shades of grey on an MRI can help predict what type of tumour it is and help physicians begin tailoring therapies,” explains Omene. He is currently working on a retrospective review, gathering 15 years’ worth of data from the Cross Cancer Institute’s brain tumour database to further prove the accuracy of this imaging sign.
And he’s still pursuing an area of research he first became interested in while in medical school: whether following a ketogenic diet — that is, a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates — can be a useful supplemental treatment. Omene explains that tumours, and particularly GBM, aren’t well-equipped to use ketones as a fuel; they require glucose. Because tumour cells take in large amounts of glucose, the hypothesis is that a ketogenic diet might reduce glucose supply to the tumour, “starve” the tumour and slow growth.
“We’ve just done very informal, pilot trials where we discussed it with a dietician team here at the Cross Cancer Institute and with patients who were interested in hearing about it,” says Omene. “It’s not a randomized controlled trial, but there’s science here, and it’s getting interest from clinicians and patients.”
Following the fellowship, Omene has no intention of resting easy. He’s still an athlete at heart and has big plans.
“In both medicine and sport, success happens when you’re consistent and show up, and you put in the work. I think the mentality that allows athletes to train, persevere and become better is definitely suited to medicine and doing research,” says Omene. He adds that his goal now “is to help build a neuro-oncology program in Saskatoon, because I’m from Saskatchewan originally, while maintaining my connection with Alberta through interprovincial research and clinical trials.”
“In both medicine and sport, success happens when you’re consistent and show up, and you put in the work.” — Dr. Egiroh Omene