When UTM staff member Andrew Sedmihradsky attended one of the Principal’s Town Hall meetings last fall, he had no idea that the decision would lead to a partnership that could change his six-year-old son’s life.
“Principal [Ulrich] Krull said he was interested in hearing the stories of UTM staff engaged in our community,” remembers Sedmihradsky, global mobility coordinator at UTM’s International Education Centre. He sent Krull an email about Max’s Big Ride, a charitable event he founded in 2015 to raise funds and awareness for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive genetic disorder affecting one in every 5,000 boys, including his son, Max. Over the past two years, he — together with Max on a cargo bike — has completed the 600-kilometre ride along the Waterfront Trail from Ottawa to his home town of Hamilton. The pair’s efforts have raised funds to support Duchenne research through London, Ontario-based charity, Jesse’s Journey, and they are setting out on this ride again in June.
Sedmihradsky’s email netted a reply from an unexpected source: cancer researcher Professor Patrick Gunning, head of UTM’s newly launched Centre for Medicinal Chemistry. Gunning is internationally recognized for developing inhibitors of proteins that drive some of the most rare and lethal human cancers, including acute myeloid leukemia and glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.
While not currently involved in Duchenne research, the Gunning Group is widely considered a leader in research involving the family of STAT proteins, which help to mediate the expression of specific genes. STAT3 has previously been linked to Duchenne.
“Evidence suggests STAT3 is overactive in satellite muscle stem cells, which prevents the cells from replicating,” explains Diana Kraskouskaya, a research associate in Gunning’s lab. “It may also directly contribute to muscle cell death by not letting stem cells repopulate the lost tissue.”
Thanks to an introduction from Krull, Gunning and his team now plan to expand their research into this field. They have partnered with Max’s Big Ride and Jesse’s Journey to direct the proceeds from this year’s ride to the establishment of a graduate fellowship in the Gunning Group lab. The fellowship recipient will evaluate the effectiveness of the group’s STAT3 inhibitors in animal models of Duchenne. The group hopes to find ways of not only preventing the muscle atrophy that characterizes the disease, but also reversing existing damage, so that those confined to a wheelchair can regain their mobility.
“STAT3 is clearly one of the key drivers of this disease, and we have the tools to block this pathological protein. We are very optimistic about the success of this approach, and are hopeful that it will improve the lives of many Duchenne patients like Max,” notes Gunning.
For Sedmihradsky, the prospect of a potential therapy so close to home is one of the most exciting things he’s experienced since launching Max’s Big Ride. “It really speaks to what it’s like to work in a place like this, to know there are people in this very building who have the power to change Max’s life. It’s unbelievable!”
Max’s Big Ride 2017 will leave Hamilton on Sunday, June 4, and arrive on Parliament Hill on Monday, June 12. To learn more and support the Duchenne graduate fellowship at UTM, visit www.maxsbigride.com