Steroid's impact on cancer treatment's effectiveness studied by PhD student

A PhD student in biology has spent his summer hunkered down in the lab trying to figure out why an anti-nausea drug used by cancer patients might put more stress on breast cancer cells and make them more resistant to chemotherapy.

Martin Crozier, a student in professor Lisa Porter’s lab, is studying the relationship between breast cancer and a stress hormone called cortisol. He said cancer patients receiving such chemotherapy drugs as paclitaxel often get a synthetic form of cortisol called dexamethasone to prevent nausea caused by the heavy regime of cancer treatment drugs they’re taking.

However some research conducted in Dr. Porter’s lab has led her team to believe that dexamethasone, which is a steroid, may be making the cancer cells resist the chemo.

“It seems as though the steroid may actually suppress the chemo,” said Crozier, who earned a masters’ degree in molecular biotechnology from Wayne State University and a masters’ degree in philosophy from the University of Windsor, before entering the PhD program in Biological Sciences in 2009. “We’re just trying to figure out the mechanisms. How does it actually work? What’s going on in those cells?”

Crozier’s research has involved working with in commercially available cancer cell lines.  He gives those cells the dexamethasone steroid in vitro, then gives them paclitaxel chemo drugs, and then collects the cells to analyze their survival rates.

“There were a higher number of cancer cells that received the steroid that survived than the ones that didn’t,” said Crozier, who originally comes from Prince Edward Island. “The paclitaxel still kills cancers cells, but it just isn’t killing as many as it could be. We want to know why.”

But Crozier is quick to point out that the findings are still very preliminary and that cancer patients should continue following their doctors orders if they’ve been prescribed dexamethasone.

“The steroid works,” he said. “It prevents people from getting sick, and it’s actually used in conjunction with other chemotherapy regimens without any side effects.”

Crozier, who is married to a local nurse and has three children, has already presented his findings to Windsor Regional Cancer Centre and was off to a conference this month in New York to present them there. He hopes that by understanding the mechanism, scientists can develop better dosages or find better ways for the chemotherapy drugs to work.

Crozier said he loves doing research, but eventually wants to become a full-time lecturer.

“That’s my passion,” he said. “That’s what I love to do.”

And while managing the demands of a heavy workload and family can be tough, he’s very pragmatic about it.

“The long hours can be tough,” he said. “I’d love to have more time with the kids, but I see this as a means to an end.”