Summer Students Tell All

Another summer is already in the books, and that means that the undergraduate students who embarked on a BioCanRx-funded research internship in cancer immunotherapeutics have departed as well. We are so proud of the way they have learned and developed, and we extend our best wishes to them for the future!


Curious what these students were up to? We asked two of them to expand on their experiences. Meet Olivia Craggs, who worked with the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis team and the Prevention team, and Mary Agopian who worked in Dr. Uri Tabori’s lab at the University of Toronto.



1. Who are you? Where did you go to school? What’s your program? One fun fact about yourself!


Olivia: My name is Olivia Craggs and a Cree student from One Arrow First Nation. I grew up in Vancouver, B.C. where I am currently studying biochemistry. In my free time I enjoy hiking, camping, snowboarding, and playing hockey!


Mary: Hi everyone! My name is Mary Agopian, and I graduated with an Honours B.Sc. in Microbiology and Immunology from McGill University this past year. And I am now in my first year of a Ph.D. in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. During my undergraduate studies, my degree in Microbiology and Immunology allowed me to discover that I am considerably interested in exploring the field of computational medicine. This summer allowed me to explore the application of computational techniques in cancer research.


A fun fact about me is that I have been practicing ballet for about a decade!


2. Why did you want to do cancer research this summer?


Olivia: I’ve lost many significant people in my life to cancer including my Mom, Grandpa, teachers, and coaches. I was the main caretaker for my Mom during her treatments for cervical, liver and spine cancer, and for my Grandpa during his treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Through these experiences, I gained insight into cancer care for First Nations patients and had a goal to contribute to cancer research.


Mary: My degree in Microbiology and Immunology showed me early on cancer’s devastating, systemic, and rapid effects. The opportunity to merge my immunology knowledge with bioinformatics to help advance the field of treatment resistance in replication repair deficient (RRD) cancers was the perfect way to engage in the field while helping advance the possibility of improving patients’ quality of life.


3. What did you work on this summer? What did you discover?


Olivia: I worked with the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis team and the Prevention team. Through an environmental scan and key informant interviews, we sought First Nations-led approaches to HPV immunization as a means to combat cervical cancer. There are significant data gaps apparent for First Nations-led approaches and most approaches were Métis-led or concerned COVID-19.


Mary: This summer in the Tabori lab, I worked on investigating genomic mutations that affect patient response to immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) therapy in replication repair deficient (RRD) cancers. RRD cancers are chemotherapy resistant, but have been shown to respond to ICI therapy (Nature Med 2022). However, 70% of RRD cancers are resistant to ICIs. Therefore, we set out to investigate if there are ICI resistance drivers in RRD patients’ genomes that prevent this therapy from being an effective treatment option for our resistant sub-population.


This analysis involved using a variant barcoding pipeline to compare the genomes of non-resistant and resistant RRD patients. We then used a script I created to pinpoint statistically and biologically relevant mutations that differentiate the two groups.


This method allowed us to discover that 493 significantly mutated genes differentiate ICI-responders from non-responders in RRD cancers. These 493 genes include biologically relevant and essential genes involved in cancer progression, DNA damage response, epigenetic modification, and treatment-targetable genes. These mutations in these specific genes may lead to up-regulation or down-regulation of specific oncogenic and immune pathways. Therefore, these mutations can be used for downstream predictive and future combinatorial treatment strategies, which further opens up the potential for more patients to have effective ICI treatments.


4. What was one memorable moment from this past summer during your studentship?


Olivia: I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved in various projects with CPAC. The teams I worked with were exceptionally supportive and helped me to develop my skills as a researcher. A memorable moment for me was in July when I had the opportunity to join my team at the Assembly of First Nations 43rd Annual General Assembly in Vancouver.


Mary: One of my highlights from this summer’s studentship in the Tabori lab was the lab meetings. Having a space where novel research is presented, debated, and analyzed significantly impacted how I approach science.
Science is an ever-evolving and collaborative process that allows for the progression toward a higher quality of life. This experience allowed me to think critically about research and its potential impact.


5. How did this research experience impact your career development?


Olivia: This experience with BioCanRx and CPAC provided me with valuable experience in research and introduced me to the field of health policy. This experience solidified my goal of obtaining a career in health sciences and introduced me to the significant data gaps that are apparent in First Nations health.


Mary: This research experience allowed me to explore bioinformatic variant barcoding pipelines, visualization techniques, and statistical methods for analyzing data. Getting more experience in bioinformatics and computational medicine reaffirmed my passion for the field. This experience also highlighted the importance of data comprehension combined with biological and computational knowledge for attaining significant conclusions in the ever-evolving field of cancer research.


6. What is your hope for cancer treatment/care in the future?


Olivia: I hope that the future of cancer care is that all forms of cancer are treatable regardless of the type of cancer or time of diagnosis. I hope that cancer treatments are accessible to all Canadians, including those on rural reserves, and that traditional remedies can be incorporated into treatment plans.


Mary: My hope for cancer treatment and care is the advancement of research in cancer treatment resistance and combinatorial treatment strategies. Investigation into treatment resistance allows more patients to have potential therapies available, improving overall outlooks and quality of life.