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P.E.I. native heading to Harvard University to study genetics behind cancer

Justin Pater recently accepted a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University to study nerve sheath tumours. Pater, who grew up in Montague, hopes to bring his knowledge back home and offer personalized medicine treatments to cancer patients on P.E.I.  ©THE GUARDIAN - Memorial University -
Justin Pater recently accepted a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University to study nerve sheath tumours. Pater, who grew up in Montague, hopes to bring his knowledge back home and offer personalized medicine treatments to cancer patients on P.E.I. ©THE GUARDIAN - Memorial University - Submitted

Justin Pater of Montague is about to embark on a scientific journey to better understand the genetics of cancer as part of his postdoctoral research at Harvard University.

Pater, 32, recently accepted a postdoctoral research position at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to study nerve sheath tumours.

He begins his research in August with Dr. A. Thomas Look and hopes to complete his postdoctoral research in three years.

Pater says his ultimate goal is to bring his knowledge back to P.E.I. and work with his wife, Dr. Megan Tesch of Charlottetown (who is training to become a medical oncologist), and provide tailored cancer therapies.

“I would like to work with my wife on personalized medicine,” said Pater in an interview with The Guardian. “I can offer to enrol her patients in the research and study the genetics of their tumours and then find the genetic factors that are driving their cancers.”

Pater graduated from Montague Regional High School in 2004 and completed his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Prince Edward Island.

He went on to get his master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan in veterinary biomedical science. He is currently doing his PhD in human genetics in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L. He will head to Harvard in August when he completes his degree.

Pater says he is “overwhelmed” with this opportunity to study at Harvard University.

Pater is studying nerve sheath tumours, a rare type of sarcoma, which occurs in the lining of the nerves that extend from the spinal cord into the body. He will be focusing on the genetic factors that contribute to cancer initiation and spread, as well as metastasis of these nerve sheath tumours.

“The problem with sarcoma is there is not a lot of treatment out there, and if there is, they are not very effective,” said Pater.

Once they identify these genetic factors, they will use a genome editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 that allows them to edit the genome in zebrafish.

“If we find a mutation in say Gene A that causes cancer, then we can then go to Gene A in the zebrafish and make those same genetic changes in the fish using CRISPR/Cas9.”

Zebrafish have 75 per cent of the same genome as humans and produce hundreds of offspring every week, making it an ideal living organism to study.

“My role is to fill in the gaps and missing information and then take these newly identified genetic factors and model this cancer in zebrafish and then turn around and find a therapy for it.”

Pater says he has always been interested in cancer research, since he has a strong family history of cancer. He became interested in the genetics aspect of cancer in the second year of his undergrad at UPEI.

“I just saw the promise of genetics and where it was it going,” said Pater.

A recent statistic by The Canadian Cancer Society suggests one in two people will develop cancer in their lifetime.

Pater says those numbers are grim and would like to help fellow Islanders by bringing his research and Harvard contacts back home to work with his wife on P.E.I.

He also hopes to get a faculty appointment at the Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI to continue his research and work with students in the biology department at UPEI and the bioscience technology program at Holland College to teach them genome editing and sequencing.

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