Childhood battle inspires undergrad’s cancer research

Adela Talbot // Western News

Colette Benko, a first-year Medical Sciences and Scholar’s Electives Student, is a pediatric cancer survivor and an award-winning cancer researcher.

While her peers were preparing to enter high school, Colette Benko was preparing for aggressive cancer treatment.

The surgery to remove a mango-sized tumour in her stomach also took a piece of the 13-year-old’s femoral nerve, breaking the circuit that sends a signal from the competitive dancer’s brain to her leg, telling it to move.

The chemotherapy that followed left Benko sicker than the worst bout of stomach flu.

But Benko saw beyond the hardship she faced, allowing the experience to lay the groundwork for a research project that soon may lead to clinical trials of an effective and less toxic treatment for neuroblastoma – a common childhood cancer.

“Cancer is something that happened; I don’t let it define me. It put things into perspective. I saw a lot of really sick kids in the hospital and that definitely inspired me; that’s the reason I want to make a difference for kids fighting disease, not necessarily just cancer,” said the first-year Medical Sciences student.

The children she saw while in the hospital, most much younger than her, receiving much harsher treatments, left an impression. She wanted to help them.

At home in Calgary, with a lot of free time on her hands in between treatments, Benko started reading. And she read a lot. Cancer intrigued her; there were many unknowns, many variations and many treatment options. But Benko didn’t want to research synovial sarcoma – the cancer that affected her. She felt she could not tackle it objectively.

Instead, she started reading about neuroblastoma, diving deep into PubMed.

“You just go on and use the search tool and start reading. It took me a while to figure it out; there’s definitely a lot of words I don’t know so I started a wall of sticky notes. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know, I would write down the definition and post it on the wall. When I would come across the word again, I would look for it. I was in Grade 9; I didn’t have the vocabulary to decipher these complex papers, so you just break them up into pieces. Once you get used to the terminology, it’s not that difficult,” Benko explained.

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Her sticky notes eventually coalesced into a research project, A Novel Pediatric Cancer Therapy Targeting Epigenetics and Neuroblastoma Differentiation, which earned Benko the top prize at the Canada Wide Science Fair in 2017 and second place at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

Once in remission, Benko spent her free time in a University of Calgary research lab looking for a new, less toxic treatment for neuroblastoma.

“One of the things that makes it difficult to treat neuroblastoma is the cells in an incomplete state of maturity. If you relate cells to babies growing up, they go through a baby phase (stem cell) and grow up to be an adult cell (neurons or muscle cells),” Benko said.

“But somewhere along these lines, neuroblastoma goes off the rails. It stops and can’t continue growing up. You have these cancer cells that are immature; if they were to reach full maturity, they would stop growing. I aimed to find treatments that force the cells to mature because when they mature, they develop into neuronal cells which tend to be closer to being benign and less dangerous because they stop growing.”

Her research uncovered an alternative, less toxic drug treatment that could be used to treat neuroblastoma with fewer long-term side effects.

“I never got into research because of my own cancer; it was because I was exposed to all these sick kids. I had all this free time. With research, there are so many opportunities to make a difference. I’ve now concluded my previous research (on neuroblastoma) and the drugs are in a preclinical state so hopefully they will be approaching entering clinical trials,” Benko noted.

Now at Western, enrolled in the Scholar’s Electives program, she is excited to embark on new research avenues.

“It’s a fresh start, which is really exciting. I actually don’t know what’s on the plate now. The scary thing is, there is so much opportunity and so little that we know about so many things that really, I could go anywhere with research.”