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Undergrad one of five across Canada to help research brain cancer treatments

Oleksandra Kaskun is working with U of T scientist and neurosurgeon Sunit Das on treatments for brain tumours. She is one of only five students from across Canada to be selected for this opportunity.

When a patient is diagnosed with glioblastoma, brain cancer, they are given 14 months to live - and that’s with treatment. U of T Scarborough student Oleksandra Kaskun desperately wants to change those odds and this summer she will start doing exactly that.

After a rigorous application process, Kaskun was chosen from a nationwide pool of applicants as one of the five student recipients of the 2017/2018 Brain Tumour Research Studentship. This win gives Kaskun the incredible opportunity to conduct critical research about brain tumours, under the supervision of Sunit Das, for the next two summers.

“I get at least five requests a day about this studentship, and what I look for is passion from the students who are trying to explore the field of science and medicine while also finding their own interests – that’s what I got from Oleksandra,” says Das, a neurosurgeon, scientist and University of Toronto assistant professor.  

Kaskun, who is completing her Specialist Co-op in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, was interested in neurology even before she started her undergrad.

“I was always fascinated by the brain and it’s importance in the body so when I saw the post over the holidays, I applied,” she says.

The studentship application process included an initial interview with the Das and required three reference letters from lab supervisors. Having experiential knowledge from curriculum mandated organic chemistry and molecular biology labs Kaskun had her bases covered and went for it!

The Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada created this studentship to accelerate cancer research, to help students enhance their research skills and encourage them to contribute to a vital medical field.

“Everyone with this disease dies, it’s a uniformly fatal disease,” says Das. “I am interested in brain tumours, as the solutions we have now are incomplete, and my research is motivated by the need for better answers,” Das says.

After a patient is diagnosed with the disease, their treatment commonly includes aggressive brain surgery, chemotherapy and medication.  The chemotherapeutic agent used in treatment is temozolomide (TMZ), however with time the patient develops resistance to TMZ and the tumour recurs.

For Kaskun, her research’s “primary purpose is to identify alternative compounds that target TMZ-resistant glioblastoma cells and test new combination therapies for optimal treatment.”

Not only does this studentship expand Kaskun’s existing knowledge but it also gives her a practical look into a potential career as a medical researcher.

“I have had a lot of opportunities working in labs but this will give me more research experience. It will give me more experience in a medical setting,” says Kaskun.

As Das prepares to take Kaskun under his wing he reflects back to all the great figures that made a difference in his life and career.

“All of us are always looking for a chance to prove ourselves, explore, and learn and those people that gave me that chance I will always be grateful to them. I want the same for Oleksandra, I want her to explore and take this chance to succeed,” says Das.

© University of Toronto Scarborough