Featured Researcher: Dr. Cheryle Séguin
Dr. Cheryle Séguin never planned on studying cancer. “I’m a developmental biologist, not a cancer researcher,” says Séguin, who studies spine development at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in Ontario, Canada. But that changed when Dr. Séguin made a breakthrough that unintentionally provided the missing link researchers needed to study the genesis of chordoma.
After years of work, Dr. Séguin and her colleagues succeeded in developing a one-of-a-kind genetically engineered mouse that enables researchers to observe and manipulate the mouse’s notochord. The notochord is important because during development it gives rise to the intervertebral disc, the degeneration of which is the primary cause of back pain afflicting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In addition to forming the discs, some notochordal cells get lodged inside the developing vertebrae, and, in about 1 in 5 people, those cells form small benign tumors inside the spine. Occasionally, these benign notochordal cell tumors turn malignant and become a cancer known as chordoma.
Little is known about what causes notochordal cells to turn into chordoma, but now Dr. Séguin’s mouse makes it possible to study that transformation. With a $25,000 seed grant from the Chordoma Foundation Dr. Séguin is isolating notochordal cells from her mice and attempting to turn them into a cell line – a constantly dividing family of cells grown in a petri-dish. Creating a notochordal cell line will give scientists a blank slate upon which to introduce genetic changes to see which cause the cells to become cancerous. This could shed light on the cause of chordoma, and, in turn, could point to potential therapies that address the root cause of chordoma.
The Foundation’s grant to Dr. Séguin was made possible by funds raised through the fourth annual Purple Aster Concert, an annual music event in Calgary, Canada, held in memory of chordoma patient Alison Laird. The concert is organized by Alison’s husband, Ian, and friend, Carolyn Harley. Former Chordoma Foundation board member, Dr. Ed Les, also of Calgary, matched donations by concertgoers to fully sponsor the grant.
“I’ve been involved with different foundations and am just astounded and really in awe of what the Chordoma Foundation has been able to do. Seeing people raise funds specifically for our lab just blows me away.”
Everyone working on this project is committed to make a difference for chordoma patients. “We are really excited and really hopeful that we can contribute something back after all the effort that was put in to bringing us on to do this research.”