To understand cancer, Dr. Taran Gujral takes a bird’s eye view — but he also gets down in the weeds. To gain a deeper knowledge of how tumors grow and resist treatment, Gujral is studying all the noncancerous cells surrounding a tumor that can influence its behavior. At the same time, he is tracing the molecular pathways inside cancer cells that also enable them to multiply, shrug off anti-cancer drugs, and spread through the body.
In cancer research, “There’s been a constant focus on tumor cells: target the cancer cells, kill the cancer cells. Many times we do a pretty good job at killing most cancer cells in Petri-dish culture conditions,” Gujral said.
But his work has shown him that focusing just on tumor cells is short-sighted.
Gujral’s approach was inspired by a seemingly straightforward experiment: He needed to determine which of the various types of pancreatic cancer cells — called cell lines — that are used in lab studies could be killed by gemcitabine, the standard pancreatic chemotherapy, and which resisted the drug. Intended to be run in preparation for further work, the experiment led to a startling insight: Every cell line was sensitive — and every cell line was resistant.
What mattered was how crowded the cells’ environment was. The more crowded — which means more interactions between cells — the better the pancreatic cell lines shrugged off gemcitabine. Gujral discovered that cell-to-cell contact turned on molecular pathways which allowed the cells to resist drug treatment. And he learned how important a tumor cell’s environment could be.
It wasn’t the first time that Gujral shifted a long-held plan based on new information.
He has always wanted to do something meaningful with his life. For many years, he expected that would come in the form of serving his country in the Canadian military. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all military men. After earning his undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Ontario, Gujral planned to enter a military college and become an officer.
During his time at Queen’s University, Gujral was a reservist, alternating weekdays in class with weekends on base working in military intelligence. As a life sciences and mathematics major, he started volunteering in a biochemistry laboratory.
“I was very drawn to the life sciences and the problem of cancer from that stage,” Gujral recalled. “It’s truly a passion for problem solving that drives me. So instead of solving different kinds of intelligence problems, I wanted to channel energy and effort into something I truly cared about. … I exchanged my rifle for pipettes.”
Gujral pivoted, getting a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in pathobiology and molecular medicine. He joined a chemistry laboratory for his first postdoctoral fellowship, then a systems biology lab for his second.
“Through the journey I interacted with people from different scientific backgrounds. I realized that this is the kind of cross-fertilization that would truly make a difference in solving a complex problem like cancer,” he said. His goal: “Don’t come up with a preconceived notion. If you’re actually addressing the problem from various facets, you come up with unique solutions.”
Now, Gujral is tackling some of the biggest problems in cancer. He’s taking inspiration from neuroscience to develop methods that better mimic how the body functions to study how the noncancerous cells surrounding a tumor can influence its behavior. Drawing on the tools of molecular biology, he is studying metastasis, in which cancer cells spread from the original tumor and initiate new tumors elsewhere. And he’s using a computational approach to better understand drug resistance in cancer.
“It’s a satisfying feeling, finding an answer that nobody knew before that could contribute to a wider knowledge; that’s a small piece of the puzzle that will contribute to other answers in the future,” Gujral said.