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Food for thought: Dr. Rachel Murphy dissects diet and disease

First included in the 2019 BC Cancer Research Report, Dr. Murphy shares her work on nutrition and diet for cancer prevention.
 
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​Dr. Rachel Murphy is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to nutrition and diet for cancer prevention. According to the BC Cancer scientist, approximately 40 per cent of cancers can be prevented through healthy living which includes eating well. Her population-based approach to research focuses on identifying key biomarkers of diet and lifestyle and its impact on cancer. Using the latest technologies including metabolomics and metagenome sequencing, she studies large populations of Canadians and works to inform new strategies to help Canadians reduce their risk of cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices. Her goal is to support people to make healthy lifestyle choices and reduce their risk of developing cancer.   

In 2019 Dr. Murphy received one of only nine operating grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to lead a national team which will provide evidence on modifiable risk factors, beyond smoking cessation, that contribute to lung cancer. 2019 also saw Dr. Murphy step into a scientist role with Cancer Control Research at BC Cancer after four years in an affiliate scientist role. And the icing on the cake? She contributed to nine peer-reviewed publications this year - five of which were led by her trainees. 

Looking forward, Dr. Murphy serves up her thoughts on the future of cancer research in her field. 

What are your thoughts on the future of oncology? 

We know that 1 in 2 people will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. A greater emphasis on preventative policies and programs is needed to address this statistic and stop cancer before it starts. Precision medicine is offering promising treatment options for some patients but it also holds great potential to revolutionize preventative approaches by considering an individual’s biological, epidemiological, behavioural and socioeconomic characteristics. 

Where have you seen the most significant progress in cancer research since the beginning of your career?

When I first started my training, technologies like metabolomics and genomic sequencing were just starting to be more widely applied to study cancer. This area has really expanded in the past decade and has transformed the field of nutrition and cancer, as well as cancer research more broadly. It has been exciting to see some of the discoveries from the application of these technologies such as the identification of new metabolic biomarkers for cancer risk and the emergence of the microbiome as an important mediator for many aspects of cancer including cancer incidence and response to therapy.   

What do you think is the most pressing problem facing cancer research now?

The growing number of Canadians who will develop cancer over the coming decades emphasizes the need for resources to be focussed on cancer prevention research. It is critical to improve our understanding of risk factors for cancer, and particularly factors that can be changed. There is also the need to focus efforts on cancers where little progress has been made with respect to survival rates, e.g. pancreatic, liver and lung cancer.

What advice would you offer to young scientists?

Don’t be afraid to stretch the boundaries of your discipline – this will be how you can establish your niche. Seek out like-minded colleagues who see the added value you bring to research and recruit talented people to your team. 

To learn more about BC Cancer's research highlights for 2019, read the Research Report here

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