Kingston Whig-Standard: Cancer research breakthrough ‘promising’

A scientific breakthrough in cancer research has been made by Kingston resident Caitlin Miron, a PhD student in the department of chemistry at Queen’s University.

The 28-year-old identified a chemical compound that binds well to DNA, and in turn could prevent cancer cells from spreading.

“I like doing research that makes a difference to someone,” said Miron, 28, who has lived in the Limestone City since beginning undergraduate studies at Queen’s nine years ago. “Some day this could actually make someone’s life better.

“There’s definitely a lot of potential. It’s very promising. I’ve been excited about this for two years.”

It was in the summer of 2015, while serving an internship under Jean-Louis Mergny, research director at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology in Bordeaux, France, that Miron made her discovery.

While screening chemical compounds, Miron identified one that binds well to a four-strand DNA architecture — called a guanine quadruplex — associated with cancer and other diseased cells.

“It was really exciting,” she said of the discovery. “Jean-Louis is one of the top three or four names in this particular field of research. For him to look at my research and say, ‘We have something here,’ was exciting.”

On Tuesday, Miron, an Ottawa native, was in the nation’s capital to receive the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation-PhD. Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that partners companies, government and academia to promote Canadian research and training, is funding Miron’s research.

The award is presented to a PhD student who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation while participating in a Mitacs-funded program. Miron is one of five award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year. The other four recipients were recognized for outstanding innovation, commercialization or exceptional leadership in other areas of research.

A provisional patent for the compound discovered by Miron was granted earlier this month. According to Mitacs, her discovery is expected to be ready for licensing by pharmaceutical companies within two to five years.

Depending on its final structure, Miron said, the compound could be administered intravenously or perhaps orally.

“Like chemo with less side effects,” she said. “That’s the goal.”

The U.S. National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md., is running a screening program based on Miron’s discovery. Miron said the binder — think of it as a glue — has been tested in 60 different cancer cell lines and five of the lines have shown less growth.

Though the discovery was first made two years ago, Miron said “we’re making the news public for the first time.”

On Tuesday, she was interviewed by CTV’s Anne-Marie Mediwake on the Your Morning national show, and Miron has other interviews lined up for this week.

She’s not used to getting all this attention, but she’s enjoying it.

“I like being on my own in the lab, but I’m always happy to talk about my research,” she said.

Earlier this month she spoke about her discovery at the Canadian Cancer Research conference in Vancouver and also at a conference in Montreal.

“I’m good at talking about science,” she said.

She often spends 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, in the lab doing research.

“Working in the lab is a full-time job,” she said, laughing. “I’m pushing to get things wrapped up for publication.”

Her findings will be published in January 2018.

Miron, who earned a bachelor of science degree (honours) from Queen’s in 2012, began her PhD studies in supramolecular chemistry in 2014 and will complete her studies next August. It was in her second year of undergraduate studies that she volunteered to work in the lab of professor Anne Petitjean, who was Miron’s chemistry teacher and is now her PhD supervisor.

“I knew I wanted to do research of some sort,” Miron said. “I’ve always liked to be involved in health research of some kind. I would like to stay in cancer research.”

“Caitlin has pushed our field from one level to the next,” Petitjean said in a news release. “Not only has she provided completely novel compounds that will surely find much-needed applications in cancer and infection treatments, but she has also paved the way to better bioanalytical techniques to study these incredible binders.”

In addition to her research, Miron’s other passion is teaching — but it has nothing to do with science. Every Wednesday night, she volunteers as a Latin dance teacher with the Queen’s Spanish and Latin American Students’ Association.

“I took it up in university,” she said. “It’s good exercise and it gets me out of the lab. I like teaching.

“Work-life balance is important. It’s good to have something I’m committed to going to every week when I need a break from the lab.” 

By: Mike Norris