Dr. Shawn Beug

PhD in biochemistry and Postdoctoral Fellow (Apoptosis Research Centre, CHEO Research Institute, Ottawa)
Researcher of the month: 
Apr 2014

A moving target

While researchers are closer than ever before to fully understanding many types of cancer, it remains extremely challenging to develop anti-cancer therapies, especially those that are targeted, in a timely way.
The problem is essentially two-fold; cancer is a highly heterogeneous disease that rapidly evolves mechanisms to overcome therapeutic treatments – treatments which are time-consuming to develop.

What this often means is that by the time a targeted cancer therapy is discovered, developed and validated, the cancer has evolved and adapted to the original treatment, leaving researchers with a moving target and not enough time to hone in on an effective kill shot, so to speak.

A double-barrelled approach

That’s why Dr. Shawn Beug, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa, decided to try a synergistic approach to speed the fight against cancer, by leveraging two current experimental therapies together.

What he and his colleagues found, under the mentorship of the CHEO Research Institute’s Dr. Robert Korneluk, is that by combining SMAC Mimetics (a therapy that activates a self-destruct reflex in cancer cells) with oncolytics (injecting live viruses into tumours on a seek and destroy mission), they have created a double-barrelled approach that kills cancer cells that are so far impervious to other current treatments.
“Because these two therapies so safely synergize, they will be useful over an unprecedented spectrum of cancer types,” says Dr. Beug “I believe this new combination approach could become be the standard of care for cancer treatment.”

Overcoming adversity

Dr. Beug has never shied-away from a challenge. When he was four, he lost his hearing due to spinal meningitis. With the advent of modern medicine, he recovered from the infection and developed a keen interest in biology. This interest eventually led to him obtaining his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Ottawa, specializing in human and molecular genetics.

“No doubt, there have been challenges,” says Dr. Beug. “For instance, I can’t talk over the phone, which of course means that I can’t participate in conference calls. I also find conferences quite difficult as I can’t read seminar slides and lip-read the speaker at the same time.”

The difficulties of being a deaf researcher have not, however, had any impact on Dr. Beug’s drive to have a significant, positive impact on patients’ lives. When he discovered the exciting work that Dr. Korneluk’s lab was generating at the Apoptosis Research Centre at CHEO`s Research Institute, he leapt at the opportunity to make an important contribution to the development and refinement of therapies for cancer treatment.

“It was at CHEO after all where the mammalian inhibitors of apoptosis, or IAPs, were first discovered by the Korneluk group in the 1990s,” explains Dr. Beug.

Worldwide evidence has shown that two immunotherapies are promising. The first, SMAC Mimetics, are drug therapies designed to antagonise these IAPs and flip a switch in cancer cells, rending them able to self-destruct once again. The second, live virus therapies, or oncolytics, involve infecting a tumour with a virus, in the hopes that it kills the cancer.

The problem is that as stand-alone therapies neither SMAC Mimetics nor oncolyticshave shown substantial effects – that is, until Dr. Beug and his colleagues at CHEO discovered that combining SMAC Mimetics together with a live virus results in a synergistic, or amplified, tumour-killing effect, which overcomes the limitation of either agent on its own.

“I’m quite excited about the remarkable synergy observed with the combination of SMCs and the oncolyticviruses,” says Dr. Beug. “Our clinical data suggests that the treatments are quite tolerable and the side effects from treatments are transient compared to standard chemotherapy.”

In some cases, tumours required 10,000-times less oncolyticvirus to kill a cancer cell when a SMAC mimetic was added. Moreover, because the two components of the treatment have been deemed safe and are already being used in humans, years of clinical development time could be saved, allowing for faster patient access to thenovel treatment.

Dr. Beug is humbled that he is witnessing the progression of bench-to-bedside research.

“Who needs coffee,” he asks, “when you realize you can have a life-altering, positive impact on a patient? That’s my fuel. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”