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Sheetal Pundir marvels at things most North Americans take for granted. Cold and hot water coming out of a tap. Electricity not just for a few hours, but for a full day. Getting a ride in a car. Having a driver’s licence. Who would have thought it possible?
A PhD student who spent five years working on anti-cancer drug development at the Advanced Medical Research Institute of Canada (AMRIC) in Sudbury, Pundir grew up dirt poor in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“I come from a very economically poor background and from an area where women’s education is not something that is considered necessary,” she said. “My mother married at the age of 15, had me at 17 and was a widow in her early 20s. Being a widow in Indian society is considered a curse. Everyone in the neighbourhood had pity on her for having three girls and no husband.”
The family had no means and Pundir was sent home from school when she couldn’t pay her fees. AIM for Seva, a charitable organization dedicated to the education of underprivileged children from rural and tribal areas of the country, came to her rescue, helping her through elementary school, high school and university.
She had started working on a PhD in genetics and was a research fellow at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, the biggest hospital in India, when she came across an advertisement placed by AMRIC’s Dr. Hoyun Lee looking for PhD students to help with his research on anti-cancer drugs at Health Sciences North.
During her time in Sudbury, Pundir worked on a promising new drug called VR23. A derivative of chloroquine designed by Dr. Raja Solomon, VR23 inhibits the proteasome system on which cancer cells are highly dependent. A synthetic derivative of quinine, chloroquine was found to be an effective anti-malarial drug as a result of research sponsored by the U.S. Government during World War Two.
Dr. Lee’s idea was to take chloroquine, which was already known to be a safe drug with minimal side effects, and modify it to improve its anti-cancer activity.
Aggressively dividing cancer cells are highly dependent on the proteasome system, which degrades and recycles proteins at the cellular level. Inhibiting the proteasome system results in cancer cell death.
Dr. Lee’s research team tested the drug on cancer cell lines, followed up with live animal testing using mice, and found that tumors treated with VR23 shrank with no toxic effects.
“It wasn’t our intention to design VR23 to inhibit the proteasome system, but we eventually discovered this is how it works,” said Pundir. “If we can reproduce that result in clinical trials, then it has very good potential.”
But there is still a lot of work to do. Ramsey Lake Pharma, a company established by AMRIC, has applied for a patent and is seeking investors to cover the cost of purifying the drug and doing further testing. In the meantime, Dr. Lee’s team is researching ways to further enhance the anti-cancer properties of VR23 by combining it with other drugs. Clinical trials on humans would be the next step.
Pundir, who is defending her thesis on VR23 later this month in Sudbury, has moved on to a new job in Montreal, but is grateful to Dr. Lee, AMRIC and the city for giving her the opportunity to fulfill her dreams.
Although determined to make her home in Canada, Pundir hasn’t forgotten where she came from. An advocate for AIM for Seva, the organization that made it possible for her to pursue her education, she’s a role model for thousands of young girls in India who hope to follow in her footsteps.