uOttawa researcher Adam Shuhendler awarded the Dorothy Killam Fellowship to help understand how cancers progress

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Research and innovation
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Faculty of Science
Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Researcher Adam Shuhendler in his lab working with a student
Adam Shuhendler, left, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Science and a scientist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. He is also a member of the Concussion Injury Group at the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute.
Chemistry professor Adam Shuhendler is most in his element when he’s developing innovative chemical technologies that push the frontiers of molecular imaging and sensing research. Now, thanks to the Dorothy Killam Fellowship, he will be working on chemical probes that provide a clearer picture of how cancers form and spread in our bodies at the molecular level.

The Dorothy Killam Fellowship provides support to mid-career researchers of exceptional ability by granting them time to pursue research projects of broad significance and widespread interest in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences and engineering.

“My vision is to create new chemical technology platforms that bring molecular imaging to its full potential so we can better understand how diseases progress in real time and non-invasively,” says Shuhendler, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology. “The chemical probes generated through this fellowship will allow us to see how certain groups of enzymes that are said to contribute to the onset and spread of cancer work together to drive the disease.”

Until now, researchers have only been able to study these groups of enzymes one at a time, notes Shuhendler. But his chemical probes would change all that. “We would be able to observe the activities of multiple groups of enzymes at the same time to see how they interact and interconnect, to increase our understanding of how cancers metastasize.”

While the first applications for these chemical agents will focus on oncology, Shuhendler says this technology has the potential to impact the mapping of enzyme behaviours in a broad range of illnesses, including neurodegeneration and infection, and could be a critical tool for evaluating drug target engagement in living organisms.

Over the years, Shuhendler and his team of graduate students have designed chemical probes for many different purposes, including one that targets aldehydes, a class of highly reactive biochemicals formed within our cells. Shuhendler and his team recently discovered that these biochemicals are early drivers of disease and therefore make effective diagnostic markers.

“For the first time, the true diagnostic power of aldehydes can be evaluated using PET and MRI, making possible the early diagnosis of sepsis-like inflammation and the prediction of tumor sensitivity to chemotherapy, as well as approaching the unmet clinical need for an objective diagnosis of concussions,” says Shuhendler. In fact, using these aldehyde-reactive agents, he is now working on a take-home test that would measure early signs of concussion.

In 2019, Shuhendler also developed a chemical platform that was integrated into a quick, inexpensive and user-friendly sensor that identifies the contents of cannabis. The device, which he built and commercialized in partnership with uOttawa researchers Benoît Lessard and Cory Harris, undergoes a chemical reaction when it detects a cannabinoid — either THC or CBD — and measures its ratio and potency. 

“I’m really proud of what my students and I have been able to accomplish in the seven years I’ve been a researcher at uOttawa,” says Shuhendler. “It’s really nice to be recognized for it, nationally, and to be given the opportunity to keep it going through this fellowship.”

Learn more about the Dorothy Killam Fellowship.