Dr. Andrew Beharry, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), was 20-minutes away from delivering an online lecture when he learned he had been awarded $244,160 as part of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).
“I got an email stating that the decision was available on the online grant submission portal,” he recalls. “I sat there fighting the urge to check the status because in the event it was not funded, it would throw off my teaching.” But when he learned he was approved, he “gave the world’s best online lecture.”
The NFRF is a federal research funding program that promotes worldwide, multidisciplinary, ground-breaking research. This year, three UTM professors received funds for their respective research: Dr. Nicole Charles, in collaboration with Dr. Tonya Haynes on type-2-diabetes; Dr. Mary Cheng, in collaboration with her sister Dr. Hai-Long Margaret Cheng on stem cell therapy research; and Dr. Beharry, in collaboration with Dr. Christine Allen on cancer cell therapy research.
In their research project titled “Darkdynamic Therapy: Photodynamic Therapy without Light,” Dr. Beharry and Dr. Allen from U of T’s Faculty of Pharmacy aim to enhance a current cancer cell therapy treatment known as photodynamic therapy (PDT), which focuses on directing light to damaged cells to kill them. “Although the requirement of light in PDT is responsible for minimizing side effects in patients, its use for treating cancers in the human body is limited,” explains Dr. Beharry.
Cancer develops when mutated cells expand and kill healthy cells. They spread uncontrollably to other body parts and may eventually form a tumor that consists of a cluster of cancer cells. There are many types of treatments available to patients, some of which include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. However, cell therapy is one of the most promising and recent fields of cancer research and treatment—and PDT falls under this umbrella.
According to Dr. Beharry, light through PDT helps minimize toxicity to healthy cells. “[It’s] a procedure that uses a small, non-toxic molecule that becomes toxic only when it is exposed to a certain colour of light,” he explains. In other words, when light interacts with this non-toxic molecule, a highly hazardous, reactive agent called “singlet oxygen” is produced. Singlet oxygen destroys nearby molecules, eventually killing cancer cells. But this procedure does not penetrate far enough to treat tumours that develop deep within the skin. Therefore, intercession such as incisions and fibre optics are necessary to assist the delivery of the singlet oxygen.
“This is an unfortunate issue because singlet oxygen is effective at killing cancer, it just isn’t being produced efficiently,” adds Dr. Beharry. “PDT is important because compared to conventional treatments, its mechanism of cancer-killing is unique, and long-term side effects such as the formation of secondary cancers are essentially non-existent.”
On the road where it all began, Dr. Beharry shares what inspired him to research more effective cancer treatments. “I am a cancer survivor of nine years who underwent radiation therapy. Though I’m grateful such a therapy exists, there are long-term side effects that can accompany this,” he explains. “I was also made aware of the probability the treatment may not work during the time of diagnosis, and the probability the cancer may come back if the treatment does work. Probabilities are frustrating for any patient to hear—even if chances of survival are good, you tend to think about falling in the low percentile.”
Dr. Beharry is a graduate of York University and U of T, having done his postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, and presently a researcher and assistant professor at UTM. “[It was] this personal experience that geared my interest towards developing therapies that worked more effectively without risks of long-term side effects,” he says. “Having been trained in large multi-disciplinary Ph.D. and postdoctoral research programs, I was well equipped to design and synthesize molecules and test them biologically.”
Dr. Beharry states that he and his team have made excellent progress in the last five years regarding his research development. “I did not think within my first five years at UTM we would already be working with medical doctors,” he adds. “Of course, we will continue to actively engage in these interactions, along with developing new projects like dark dynamic therapy so that the medical community has new tools to work with that are unique but effective.”
He further continues with his aspirations, stating “I have a very strong research group that is enthusiastic and ambitious towards the cause, and so with this team, we hope to drive home preclinical evaluation of our lead compounds and initiate commercialization within the next five years.”
Surviving cancer, and now researching it himself, Dr. Beharry wishes for an innovative future: “I hope our research brings a non-conventional, positive change to standard care in the future, that leads to large improvements in cancer patient survival rates.”