McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Cancer patients follow their doctor into her lab

Thana Dharmarajah
Published: August 1, 2012
Max Koomen
Max Koomen, 14, prepares to enter a lab at the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, as part of a tour given for brain tumour patients and their families.

Getting behind-the-scenes at McMaster University's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute was inspiring for 16-year-old Moses Cook. Diagnosed two years ago with a brain tumour, he got the chance to see the work of his surgeon, Dr. Sheila Singh, as a scientist.

"It's incredible what they are doing in the lab," said the teenager, who has undergone two surgeries and radiation treatment. "It's science fiction."

The tour of the research labs was organized after a request from one of Singh's pediatric patients who wanted to see how pieces of the tumour were going to be used. She invited parents and children of the b.r.a.i.n.child support group of the McMaster Children's Hospital to tour the institute's facilities last Friday.

Singh is an associate professor of surgery, a principal investigator at the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute and a pediatric neurosurgeon for McMaster Children's Hospital. She and her lab team of technicians and graduate students led the tour for about 20 members of the local support group for families caring for a child with a brain tumour.

Families got a look at the tissue culture facility, where scientists culture brain tumours and isolate brain tumour initiating stem cells. They had the chance to look at these cells through the microscope. They also saw the latest technology in high-speed cell sorting and heard about how it is used in research.

Cook said he wanted to learn everything he can about tumours because he has wanted to be a neurosurgeon since he was 10 years old. He said he was familiar with some of the terminology used by the scientists during the tour from his Grade 11 biology class.

His mother, Lana Cook, says her family has travelled a dark road since his diagnosis and the tour has allowed her to see the passion that drives Singh's team.

Cook was one of the patients who has donated tissue samples from their tumours to be studied by Singh's lab.

So did 14-year-old Max Koomen, who had a large portion of his tumour removed during surgery. He didn't hesitate to allow the sample to be used for research.

"I thought, I don't need it anymore. Why have it?" Koomen said.

Singh's research is unique in that she uses actual human brain tumour stem cells rather than mouse models or cell lines grown in culture. The lab team's work is driven by patient samples and Singh said she wants to be accountable to her patients.

"We're not just scientists working in a lab and having fun. We all love what we do, we love science," Singh said. "But we know at the end of the day there's an accountability to the public and to patients, and we want to deliver. We want to find a cure, a treatment."

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