Please tell us about yourself
Palak Patel has a “curious mind,” as he puts it. He is keen to verify observations through experimentation – be it the perfect amount of chocolate to eat, or the accuracy of genetic tests for diagnosing prostate cancer.
Palak is a second-year PhD student in Pathology, working with Dr. David Berman in the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. They are part of a 13-lab, cross-Canada collaborative project focused on prostate cancer, funded by a Movember Team Grant (Prostate Cancer Canada).
For Palak, working in this collaborative environment is one of the best parts of working at Queen’s. He has never worked on such a large collaborative project before – most collaborative projects in the field are done with up to three or four labs.
Palak emphasizes the importance of working with people with different expertise in the group, and of each lab working on a different part of the puzzle as well as validating the work of other labs (that is, replicating the experiments to see if the results are reproducible).
The QCRI itself promotes a collaborative environment. Everyone on the floor is a cancer researcher. Their doors are open for guidance and advice when necessary.
What did you study?
Palak’s background is in genetics and microbiology. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and his Masters at University of Manitoba. What he is passionate about is the hands-on aspect of laboratory research. And cheekily he tells me that he “hasn’t blown anything up yet.”
Palak is happy to be working on a project that is directly linked to health. His Master’s research on bacteria had less direct applications, he tells me. His work at Queen’s is based on very practical questions, problems, and solutions.
How does your work benefit the society?
In the QCRI, Palak is focused on finding more accurate tests for identifying aggressive prostate cancer. He is developing something that can ultimately be used by clinical labs, a diagnostic test that is uncomplicated and quick.
The prostate is a male organ, roughly the shape of a walnut and approximately the size of your thumb. One in eight men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in Canada. 85% of men with prostate cancer die of something else and only 15% die from prostate cancer, likely due to an aggressive, fatal form of it. Finding a way to more accurately diagnose aggressive and indolent prostate cancer is therefore very important.
Palak has a series of projects aimed at this identification. He is looking for biomarkers, changes at the molecular level that are caused by the prostate cancer. As he explains it, for any living organism, DNA is the blueprint and RNA is the messenger, as most people learned in high school biology. But our DNA is also studded with molecules such as methyl-groups. This “methylation” acts as a second layer of blueprint. Cancers, including prostate cancer, have shown to have changes in the DNA methylation patterns. It is Palak’s task to identify changes in the methylation patterns produced by aggressive prostate cancer and develop different ways of its detection.
Tell us about your work
Working at the QCRI, Palak has access to the Kingston General Hospital’s collection of cancer tumors, a very useful resource. These are cancerous tissues that have been surgically removed from patients since 2000. These samples are highly annotated, accompanied by records of what happened to the patient pre- and post-surgery. These are extremely valuable sources for research; however, for samples to be kept for so long, they are preserved in formalin.
For labs, biological samples kept in formalin are considered to be “poorer quality” than samples which have been frozen directly after surgery. Frozen samples provide better quality material for research, but must be kept at -80°C or liquid nitrogen, both very expensive.
Formalin samples can be kept at room temperature and for much longer. Because the availability and convenience of the formalin samples, it is important to be able to determine how to use them effectively, which has been Palak’s first task at the QCRI.
Having developed a protocol to maximize output from these “poor-quality” samples, Palak’s second project in the lab is aimed at developing a way for methylation to be evident on a stained slide as a diagnostic tool.
This project draws on knowledge of chemistry. In the collaborative QCRI environment, Palak can turn to his second supervisor, Dr. Anne Petitjean, from Chemistry, for guidance.
From Palak’s curious mind, together with Dr. Petitjean and Dr. Berman, and the experts of the 12 other Canadian labs who are part of the Movember Team Grant, will come with an accurate, effective and easy-to-use genetic diagnostic test for aggressive prostate cancer.