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International student relished opportunity to study cancer at OVC

Cancer research is a passion for Lais Calazans. The fourth-year Brazilian student veterinarian considered focusing on many areas of veterinary medicine - general practice, swine medicine, and anesthesiology – but her work with pathologists at Ceará State University (CSU) where she studies, convinced her oncology was the right choice for her.

International student Lais Calazans completed a year of study at the University of Guelph and Ontario Veterinary CollegeThe CSU student completed a year of study at the University of Guelph and the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) under the Science Without Borders program. CSU is located in the Brazilian state of Ceará.

Science without Borders (SwB), also known as Ciencia sem Fornteiras (CsF), is a scholarship program jointly funded by the Brazilian government and private sector. The Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) administers the majority of university-level scholarships for the SwB program on behalf of the funders, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). SwB students come to the University of Guelph for 12 to 16 months, with a combination of English language studies (if needed), two academic semesters, and an unpaid research or industry placement in the summer.

“In my veterinary internship program I can choose different countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada,” explained Calazans. “I looked at a number of universities and I looked at OVC and it is one of the best veterinary colleges.” Through her search she found out about OVC’s referral hospital to treat cancer, the Mona Campbell Centre for Animal Cancer and contacted Dr. Paul Woods, veterinary oncologist and co-director of the UofG’s Institute of Comparative Cancer Investigation’s (ICCI), for more information.

She immersed herself in biomedical, animal science and toxicology undergraduate courses through the fall and winter semesters before beginning a research project with the ICCI’s Companion Animal Tumour Sample Bank (CATSB) last summer. The CATSB is the only Canadian tumour bank dedicated to veterinary samples.

“I had the opportunity to take a course in cancer biology in the winter. It helped me to understand the molecular basis of cancer and then in the hospital I saw the clinical application of the knowledge that I had gained,” she added.

Calazans finds cancer research a fascinating area. “I know a lot of animals struggle with cancer and most of the time you cannot cure cancer so you work to relieve the pain and increase the quality of life.”

Her summer research project focused on canine leiomyosarcoma cells from the CATSB cell line bank. Leiomyosarcomas are malignant tumours that can arise in smooth muscle areas; they are primarily found in the small intestine and stomach, but other sites include the spleen, liver, urinary bladder, uterus, and deep soft tissues of domestic animals such as dogs. Surgery followed by chemotherapy is the standard of care treatment for this type of sarcoma. However, new classes of drugs, known as signaling drugs, are being developed to block specific events that promote cell growth. Calazans research looked at the effect of one of these signaling agents, mTOR inhibitors (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin) on these cell lines to determine if this would inhibit cell growth.

In addition to the research portion, Calazans had the opportunity to shadow veterinary oncology clinicians each morning. While she didn’t perform procedures or participate in treating patients, Calazans observed appointments, “I learned how to approach the client, what tests to use to diagnose, what treatments are available.”

“I’m a really fortunate person to have this opportunity and really grateful to all my supervisors, all the residents, everyone helped me a lot,” added Calazans. She worked closely with Dr. Kaya Skowronski, CATSB Coordinator, in addition to Dr. Woods, Clinical Studies, and Drs. Brenda Coomber and Tony Mutsaers, Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. Woods said “It was great to have Lais on the oncology team for last summer’s semester. We were able to show her the level of care we are able to provide in surgical, medical, and radiation oncology at the OVC’s comprehensive cancer centre. In addition, Lais was able to work with Kaya and Brenda to learn the importance of clinical research to both pets and people. Hopefully, she will be able to use what she learned at OVC in her future studies and career worldwide.”

Lais planned to continue pursuing veterinary oncology on her return to Brazil. “In my town in Brazil there is just one veterinary oncologist and we really need more,” she says.

The positive experience also had Calazans considering applying for an internship or residency in oncology at OVC upon graduation from her veterinary program.