Philanthropy and a tight community have helped Dr. Julie St-Pierre investigate what drives us—and drives tumour growth.
Dr. Julie St-Pierre has always been fascinated by what powers us – the hardworking cellular machines that give our cells the energy they need to survive and function. Her work may help us understand how cells are able to keep growing, even when they shouldn’t.
St-Pierre works in the field of oncometabolism at the Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC). She is interested in understanding how cancer cells fuel their growth. Just as metabolism helps us break down food for the energy we need for our tissues and organs, these metabolic processes are also at work inside cancer cells. Mitochondria—self-contained structures that are responsible for transforming proteins and fats into energy our cells can use—are St-Pierre’s specialty.
Scientist Otto Warburg first connected mitochondria with cancer a century ago, but interest in the role metabolism can play in cancer recently exploded as new technologies made new discoveries possible. In the mid-2000s, the Goodman Centre wanted to expand the number of people working in this area. St-Pierre was one of the Centre’s new recruits.
“Metabolism is essential to fuel tumour growth,” St-Pierre explained.
Certain metabolic processes like glycolysis happen more in cancer cells than in normal cells. Scientists aren’t quite sure what’s happening; perhaps the mitochondria instead of mainly producing energy are being used for building components for the dividing cells. Some scientists think that mitochondria might even be a target for future cancer treatments.
St-Pierre noted the promise of state-of-the-art equipment at the GCRC was compelling, of course, but the vibrant scientific community at the Centre was the biggest attraction. “Many institutions have infrastructure, but it’s that critical mass of scientists working around the same topic that makes a difference,” she said. “All the ingredients exist at the Centre for the recipe to work and be successful, that’s why I decided to come here.”
Philanthropy has played an important role in her work. A mitochondria may feed a cell, but St-Pierre noted that philanthropy is vital to feed science. “You’re talking about fueling? If you want to have treatment, you need to fuel research,” she said. “You can have the best idea in the world, but if there is no financial support to fund the idea, then the result is nothing.”