Benesch, Dr. Matthew

2014 Winner: Leaders of Tomorrow sponsored by Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education

Physician Scientist in Training Working on a Cancer Drug

To say Matthew Benesch could be a leader in science and technology in the future is an understatement. He consistently pursues remarkable research into cancer treatment while volunteering and participating in the scientific community. He does so because that’s the person he is.

“It’s easy to find things to do when it’s in your environment,” says Benesch. “I’ve been doing a lot of cancer work and it’s easy enough to spend some time and get some perspective by doing some work in the cancer wards.”

Breaking New Ground

Now working on the PhD portion of his combined MD/PhD degree at the University of Alberta, Benesch is showing incredible promise with his cancer treatment research.

Since starting his PhD in 2012, his studies have focused on an enzyme called autotaxin, which is produced by the surrounding normal tissue and promotes cancer growth. The body produces this enzyme in conjunction with wound healing to promote new cell growth. Benesch is discovering that in cancer patients the enzyme is increasing tumor growth and metastasis.

By understanding this enzyme, Benesch says there are potential diagnostic and therapeutic benefits. “The other aspect of my project is to help develop and bring forward inhibitors of this enzyme to improve chemotherapy.”

By inhibiting the production of this enzyme, cancer treatment can be greatly improved. Although Benesch says inhibiting this enzyme has been in the works for more than 20 years, he has been able to achieve some real success.

“So far we’ve got one candidate that we’ve been able to work with the pharmaceutical industry to test and now it’s headed to clinical trials, ” he explains. Benesch hopes his research will contribute to the production of novel drugs that will eventually improve the lives of patients.

“It’s nice to see something from the basic research side hopefully now make an impact on the clinical side.”

Importance of Collaboration

“Isaac Newton had a statement about how he has seen far because he had stood on the shoulders of giants,” Benesch says. “I’ve been able to pull together work that other people have done for years and I think finally the field is now starting to move forward to where it can improve patient therapy.”

Benesch adds that he had a very supportive environment and because of this he has been able to accomplish more than otherwise would have been possible. From his parents to his undergraduate research supervisor there have been many people that have helped Benesch succeed. Although humble, Benesch’s hard work and dedication can’t be understated.

The Human Aspect

The driving force behind much of Benesch’s work has been his desire to help people. He volunteers with cancer patients and finds it is the human interaction that encourages his research.

“I see a lot of patients that are dealing with a terminal disease. Seeing people go through that is an incentive to try to come up with something that might have diagnosed it earlier or different drugs that given early could have led to a remission rather than a death sentence.”

Apart from his volunteering, Benesch has been a part of numerous organizations throughout his academic career. As an undergraduate he was an active leader with the HUB student residence and he served as a mentor to other students in the biochemistry program.

One of his lasting influences came as an Online Ambassador for the university registrar. He blogged about the highs and lows of his university experiences to help new students, logging nearly 300 entries with a monthly readership of over 2,000 students.

Benesch ended every blog with this phrase: “Always forward, never backward.” This has been a guiding philosophy in his career as a student and researcher. The effect of his words didn’t go unrecognized. Benesch met a first-year medical student who told him that it was Benesch’s blog that convinced him to go to medical school.

“Do the best you can at things because you never know what the impact is going to be.”