Building a Toolbox
Dr. Peter Siegel investigates how cancer can move throughout the body with devastating consequences.
Dr. Peter Siegel is a scientist because he is curious about how things work. “Maybe that is the underlying drive for a lot of scientists,” he said. In his case, he wants to know how cancer grows and spreads—how cancer can metastasize.
“In normal cells, there are processes that keep things in check,” Siegel said. “But these processes can change and lead to uncontrolled growth and the creation of a tumour. For me, I wanted to look at not just how tumours form, but also how they spread.”
“This is really the most devastating aspect of a disease like cancer.”
Siegel and the others in his lab study how breast cancer can scatter throughout the body – specifically, they’re looking at the signals that tell the body to let cancer cells proliferate and take root in other organs. Once that happens, the disease becomes much more difficult to treat.
Breast cancer tends to spread to certain organs more than others: lymph node, bone, lung, liver and brain are the most common targets.
This is likely because of the kinds of signals that Siegel is studying. “I’m trying to figure out a cancer cell’s toolbox,” he said. “The tools that a cell might need to spread and survive in a bone are going to be very different than if it spreads to the liver. We need to understand what those underlying mechanisms are that allow these cancer cells to thrive, and hopefully it’s at those points that we can think about new interventions.”
Scientists at the Centre have their own toolbox, made up of leading edge equipment like a new metabolomics core and transgenic facility. But those tools come at a price. When he isn’t in the lab, Siegel is also the GCRC’s Associate Director. He and GCRC Director Dr. Morag Park, guide the Centre’s growth, working on faculty and trainee recruitment and thinking about what grants the Centre should apply for.
“Over the last few years, the success rates for competitive grants have been going down and the number of applications are going up. That puts a lot of pressure on the system,” he said. Grants are important to the Centre’s financial future—but there is a gap between what funding the Centre wants and what funding they get through grants. Philanthropy bridges that gap. “It’s becoming more and more critical,” he said, “now more than ever.”
When the Centre is fully funded, Siegel said, the scientists there can do a lot. Researchers can explore new, innovative projects, collecting preliminary data to strengthen a grant application. Researchers can also recruit bright, talented trainees and researchers, adding to the Centre’s community and skills base. Finally, these trainees and researchers can take advantage of leading-edge equipment. “This kind of equipment changes the kinds of questions you can ask,” he noted. When these elements combine, Siegel noted, they create a domino effect that drives cancer research forward.
“Our answers are only as good as the tools we have to answer those questions.”