McMaster University has appointed a new cancer research chair. 

Dr. Paola Muti will be the new ArcelorMittal Dofasco chair in Experimental Therapeutics at McMaster University, said university dean John Kelton during a press conference at Juravinski Hospital Monday morning.

Muti will focus specifically on developing strategies for preventing the disease that kills more than 75,000 Canadians each year.

Muti's appointment was made possible by a $1-million donation by ArcelorMittal Dofasco. The donation was matched with funds from McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote Health Sciences Development Fund.

Muti's presence in Hamilton was heralded by those present as a significant and much-needed step forward in more innovative approaches to cancer research.

While more people are living longer with the disease, more cases of cancer are being reported, said Kelton, a situation that makes cancer prevention a key area of interest.

Muti noted that quite naturally funds go to cancer treatment rather than prevention strategies, which though important often struggle for funding.

"In general, federal agencies that sponsor cancer research feel the push to take care of patients. Patients are really an emergency," she said.

But she argues that given the increasing rates of cancer cases each year, moving from "the emergency of cancer treatment to cancer prevention is a better picture."  

Bill Evans, president of Hamilton Health Sciences, noted that such a program can only serve Hamiltonians in the future, citing the city's high rates of smoking and obesity, which put many at higher risk of some cancers.

Important addition

Dr. Mark Levine, chair of the department of oncology at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and director of the Escarpment Cancer Research Institute, called Muti's appointment "very important."

"She is a senior scientist, so she has a track record," he said.

Levine said she's going to strengthen the "platform of the cancer research program" by bringing scientific discoveries into practice in a preventive fashion. He calls that approach "cutting edge."

"Her work in diet and low calorie diets in preventing cancer. There's only one or two people in Canada doing that."

Muti is the former scientific director of the Italian National Cancer Institute Regina Elena in Rome, Italy and an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. She will focus on developing strategies for preventing cancer through the use of "biological or synthetic agents," she said.

"We know that cancer is related to DNA alteration. Genes can be mutated or replicated several times," she said, "…but we know that there are also ways which the cells and the body can control this. So prevention agents are able to control these alteration or mutations."

Effects of vitamin D

Muti cited the effects of vitamin D and melatonin as substances that appear to have that kind of positive preventive effect.

"We know that women who sleep better during the night, who have a higher level of melatonin, there are more protected against cancer," she explained.

She said it's important to know how this happens, however, so that one day doctors may be able to prevent certain kinds of cancer by prescribing specific supplements and vitamins.

Her goal is to establish a kind of supplement or vitamin based prescription for people who, for whatever reason, are at risk of certain cancers. For example, she mentioned workers who are exposed to asbestos and are therefore at risk of developing mesothelioma.

 "I want to be able to say I treated this person with this preventive agents because I know this person will be responding to this agent," she said.

As chair, her first priorities will be to start by studying prevention strategies related to breast cancer, mesothelioma, and ovarian cancer, she said.