UWaterloo Co-op’s Contribution to Cancer Discovery

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Written by Abilasha Rao (BSc '15)

If you were to ask me where I saw myself in the future during my first year at the University of Waterloo, I most definitely would have had a different answer than what my reality is today.

My name is Abilasha Rao and I started my journey into biological research in 2010 as a UWaterloo undergraduate, and since then it’s been quite the ride. 

The University of Waterloo’s co-op program gave me the opportunity to work in Dr. John Dick’s lab at the University of Toronto. After two co-op terms there, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the research team that studied the cellular origins of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) relapse. This research started out as an investigation into the cause of high rates of relapse among AML patients. Many brilliant minds and several hours later, I once again found myself lucky to be a part of the resulting research, which lead to the discovery that relapse can - in fact be traced back to pre-cancerous stem cells able to survive chemotherapy. This showed us that pre-cancerous stem cells have the potential to cause full-fledged leukaemia relapse in patients. This research can lead to a change in the strategies for disease treatment.

Fast forward to 2016, and I find myself in UofT’s Molecular Genetics Department at SickKids Toronto, as a Graduate student in Dr. Tae-Hee Kim’s lab. After having studied the devastations of blood cancers, I wanted to expand my knowledge, as well as apply what my past endeavours have taught me; to other forms of cancer. I am currently studying the genetics of stomach and intestinal development, in the hopes of understanding what goes wrong in gastro-intestinal cancers.

The relationships I have forged along the way - both colleagues and mentors; have played a monumental role in not only guiding my professional interests, but have also helped me change the way I approach my work.

I am happy to say that even today I am in-touch with the people that made our leukaemia discovery possible. Our work is in the process of getting published, and I continue to receive guidance and support; and can only hope that I am able to meet similar people throughout my career. Going back to 2010 – I believe that the opportunities UWaterloo gave me, set me on a journey that has led me to where I am today.