Dr Sean McKenna

University of Manitoba

Dr Sean McKenna
New treatments to outsmart cancer

Cancer cells are unfortunately pretty smart. They can find countless ways to get around our body’s defences, escape detection, resist treatment and evolve to become more aggressive.

But the very changes in their molecular biology that allow them to do such things can leave them exposed and vulnerable to targeted therapies. Dr Sean McKenna is one of the leading researchers developing new treatments to outsmart cancer.

Enzymes are proteins that help drive the complex chemical reactions that are necessary for many cellular and bodily functions. To understand what makes cancer vulnerable, many researchers are exploring how enzymes work in normal cells and how their activities change in cancer. These weak points could be the best targets to strike with new cancer treatments.

Following graduate studies at the University of Alberta, Dr McKenna began to study an enzyme called PKR as a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University. During this fellowship, Dr McKenna uncovered many aspects of how PKR works and developed tools to study interactions between enzymes and molecules called nucleic acids.

Building on this solid foundation, Dr McKenna has established an independent research program at the University of Manitoba, where he is an associate professor. In 2015, he was awarded a Canadian Cancer Society grant to develop new ways to target another enzyme called telomerase, which allows cancer cells to multiply uncontrollably. His approach uses special nucleic acid molecules called quadruplexes, which accumulate in cancer cells more readily than in healthy normal cells.

His research team will design and study quadruplex therapeutics that specifically enter cancer cells and block telomerase, crippling their growth and survival. This research is poised to have a broad impact on cancer treatment. Since telomerase is so important for cell survival, the new quadruplex therapeutics could work in many cancer types. This approach to therapy could also be tailored to target other cancer enzymes.

“Funding from CCS has allowed my research group to take the first steps towards understanding how an important unique nucleic acid structure can be specifically targeted to suppress a process central to cancer,” says Dr McKenna.