Helen Burston credits the Terry Fox Research Institute with supporting her work that’s led to a prospective drug to treat ovarian cancer.
The scientist and her husband ran in Montreal on Sunday for the 40th anniversary of the Terry Fox Run. The couple want to give back to the institute and they have raised over $500 in donations.
“I’m very passionate about human disease and drug discovery – especially with cancer,” said Burston, 39. “It affects everybody whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
Burston is one of those directly impacted. Her father, Geoffrey Burston, died of pancreatic cancer in 2012.
“So I mean, it’s extra important for me to be doing the research I’m doing,” she said.
Burston and her husband Oliver Kent met in 2012 while working in a lab at the University of Toronto. The scientist who runs the lab, Dr. Robert Rottapel, is the Ontario node leader for the Terry Fox Research Institute.
Burston started working there in March of 2012 but not long after, her father became ill. She travelled to Vancouver to be with him. While she was away, Kent was hired. Due to a lack of space at the lab, Kent was placed at Burston’s vacant desk.
“When I came back, I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ – he left coffee rings on my desk,” Burston laughed. “And then a year later, we were a couple.”
Burston’s research project, partly funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute, has identified how to block the hormone that fuels the growth of ovarian cancer cells. By blocking the hormone, you can potentially block the spread of the cancer, she explained.
The lab has filed a patent on the drug and the project is now identifying patients that might respond to it. Burston recently left the lab for a new job opportunity in Montreal, but will work as a consultant on the project as it moves forward.
For his part, Kent was originally researching a gene mutation that fuels most pancreatic cancers. His findings from this work led to a new non-cancer related project that studies gene mutations that occur at birth and cause developmental syndromes.
The Terry Fox Research Institute funds cancer research projects like Burston’s through the money raised by the annual run.
In 1980, Terry Fox attempted to run across Canada with the goal of getting every Canadian to donate one dollar for cancer research.
Fox, from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right leg in 1977 and had a partial amputation to remove the cancerous tumour. But Fox’s cancer recurred before he was able to complete the run. He died in 1981. He was 22.
“The annual run is important for keeping Terry Fox’s hope for a cure alive,” said Kent. “His hope was to cure cancer in his lifetime and that didn’t happen.”
With over $800 million raised for cancer research through the annual Terry Fox Run, Fox’s story has left a lasting impression on Canadians.
“I was pretty young, but I do remember Terry Fox coming across Ontario…and how exciting that was, and I think that memory lives on in a lot of people,” Kent said.