I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my day. I’ve interviewed rock stars, movie stars, chefs, writers and directors. I’ve even interviewed someone who considered themselves all of those things (sorry Mr. (Leslie) Nielsen, but I heard your guitar playing was subpar). But, one of the most pleasant and intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to speak with was Dr. Chris Cheeseman. It is a rare occasion when I get to talk to someone who is tangibly affecting every living thing on the planet. Not to say that art isn’t important, but when an artist gets cancer, they don’t turn to their art for medical help.
Dr. Cheeseman has all the credentials. He received a B.Sc. with honours in physiology from the University of Sheffield in1968, and then a PhD in physiology in 1972. Originally from just outside of London, U.K., he moved to Canada in 1978. As he puts it, “I had a faculty position at the University of Leicester, but because of cutbacks things didn’t look promising. I heard of a job opportunity in Canada, and Canada stands for a lot. It has inclusiveness and a lack of a class structure, so I jumped the pond with a wife and a young son.”
Describing how he got here is one thing, describing what he does is another. He is currently leading a research team that involves chemistry, oncology, radiopharmacy and physiology, which is working to develop new ways to detect hard to spot cancers. Using Positron Emission Tomography, Dr. Cheeseman can now visualize and differentiate these cells and in doing so, has done something in three years that usually takes 25. Having a limited capacity for scientific terminology, I had the good doctor explain it to me in the simplest way he could.
“Cancer cells have huge demands for energy as they are growing and need more than the normal cells around them,” explains Dr. Cheeseman. “They don’t use the fuels for cells efficiently as normal cells. They use more glucose than the cells around them, and they are very hungry cells. In order for that glucose to get into the cells they use transport proteins. You can fool the cell into taking up a glucose like compound that gets trapped inside the cell. Now we’ve made a different glucose analogue, more specifically, fructose. We are now trying to tweak it so that it is trapped inside the cells rather than cells around it. We have still some ways to go. It’s one to use it in a test tube, another to animals and another, on top of that, to humans. That is the big jump. We hope in the next six to eight months, we could be doing some very preliminary trials on patients.”
Scientists and the like can sometimes go a lifetime without seeing the effects their work has on the people around them. For Dr. Cheeseman, he not only gets to see it; he gets to build on it.
“This is really gratifying because often, for basic scientists, we all want to see our work applied in some way, but have no idea where it is going to be applied,” Dr. Cheeseman says. “As an example, some people would say, ‘What the heck is the importance of fruit fly breeding?’ But that laid the foundation to a lot of discoveries, and ever some that are related to what we are doing today. Without knowledge of the classical techniques, as well as the modern types, there wouldn’t be as much growth as we see. We wouldn’t be able to do this project without the sequencing of the human genome, because that allowed us to stand on each other’s shoulders and move forward. Chance favours the prepared mind; so, when something happens that you aren’t expecting, then you realize that what happened is actually trying to tell you something. It’s much easier to discard funny data, but sometimes that is where you find the most information. It’s a combination of the classical, of the modern, that helps us move forward.
“Our research team is like a band that had been touring out in the boonies and then was an overnight success,” Dr. Cheeseman continues. “We were ready for it, but it really has been a pleasant surprise. It was a ‘eureka shower’ for sure. We have some of the world’s best in the group, and it’s really exciting when it all comes together like this. We realized we had a perfect opportunity at the University of Alberta. Their carbohydrate department is one of the best in the world. Before we knew it, we had this team that could bring all their expertise to bear and focus on one goal. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation gave us a grant and in doing so, gave us the opportunity to get this done. Another really cool thing is that these grants that we are now getting because of our hard work have allowed us to train another generation of kids who can come up and keep this study moving forward.”
Hard work pays off, but just like anything in life, luck is the variable that you can’t always count on. Even in science.
“Serendipity plays an enormous part in science because you don’t know where it is leading you; that is the fun,” says Dr. Cheeseman. “You may just finish up in a mountain meadow, it wasn’t where you were supposed to be, but wow was it beautiful.”
Originally written for mergemag.ca