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Carol Cass

From PhD to Patient

Dr. Carol Cass has observed cancer from a variety of lenses-- not only through the microscope as a leading cancer researcher, but also from the perspective of a patient at the Cross Cancer Institute. 

In 1970, Carol followed her plant biologist husband, Dave, to the University of Alberta. Newly armed with her PhD on cell resistance to drugs, she “walked into Alan Paterson’s lab as a post-doc just as he discovered a process responsible for transporting molecules into and out of cells, which is involved in uptake of an important group of anti-cancer drugs,” she says.

But it wasn’t just the right place at the right time. Carol soon discovered that nucleoside transporters could carry anti-cancer drugs across human cell membranes and their absence resulted in resistance to anti-cancer nucleoside drugs—an important finding that demonstrated the role of basic research in improving therapies for human disease. At the time, Carol and Alan Paterson were the only two researchers in the world studying this field. Today, Carol is recognized around the globe as a leader in nucleoside transporter research.

Ironically, Carol was diagnosed with cancer in 1990. She learned she had a benign tumour that was wrapped around the optic nerve and after a craniotomy, lost vision in one eye. “There were consequences for me but when you look at the alternatives, I consider myself to be lucky,” she says. “I don’t think of myself very often as a cancer survivor because the tumor was benign but I am still a patient at the Cross. Every few months, I sit with other patients in the waiting room—it’s been interesting to see the organization from the other side.”

Despite being a world-class cancer researcher, Carol has lost several family members to the disease. Her father died of prostate cancer, her mother died of leukemia and her sister and two sisters-in-law have been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Like almost everyone else, I have a personal experience with cancer and as a researcher and a person responsible for the cancer hospital in Edmonton, I understand the complexity of the disease, the funding necessary to advance research and just how it affects people,” she says.

That’s why she is a donor as well. Aside from giving annually to various cancer fundraising events, when she and her husband recently rewrote their wills, they named the Alberta Cancer Foundation to be the recipient of 20% of their estate.

Carol has now retired from Alberta Health Services administration, taking on the role of Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta in a part-time position focused on completing research projects in her laboratory.  After her position with the University of Alberta ends in spring 2012, Carol will continue to be involved in research through collaborations with colleagues at the Cross Cancer Institute, University of Alberta, and as the Alberta Node Leader for the Terry Fox Research Institute and member of its Executive Committee. Carol and Dave have replaced much of their lab time with travelling to visit family and see operas when they can.

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