Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Victoria Forster

Staff photo
Dr. Victoria Forster

Dr. Victoria Forster, PhD

  • Post-doctoral Fellow, bMMRD group, Tabori Lab, Genetics & Genome Biology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from the United Kingdom originally. I did my undergraduate degree at Durham University and my PhD at Newcastle University. I was at the SickKids Research Institute last year for a month on a placement funded by the European Association for Cancer Research. After that placement ended, I ended up coming back to SickKids this year to work in the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research looks into a rare genetic disorder called biallelic mismatch repair deficiency (bMMRD) – that’s where children are born with no functional way to repair a certain type of DNA damage. These children are prone to different types of cancers. I am both trying to learn more about this underlying predisposition and also find better ways to actually treat the cancers that children with bMMRD are diagnosed with.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
My all-time favourite scientist is Janet Rowley, who in the 1970s first discovered that cancers were caused by DNA mutations. Specifically, she discovered a fusion gene (when two pieces of DNA that aren’t supposed to be near each other get joined together when a cell replicates its DNA) in a disease called Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). She found that this particular fusion gene, called BCR/ABL or the Philadelphia chromosome, caused CML. She also uncovered other fusion genes such as RUNX1/ETO, which is the most common fusion found in acute myeloid leukemia. Her discoveries set off a whole new area of science. Because of her, we now know that almost all cancers are caused by DNA mutations. 

This woman was remarkable: she was a medical doctor, had four children and worked in her lab well into her 80s. She was also known to be very supportive to up-and-coming scientists and would pop in on meetings with students to give them feedback. She did all this at a time when women in science were reasonably rare. She was not only a formidable trail blazer for women in science but she made one of the most important discoveries in cancer ever in my opinion.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 changed everything for cancer sciences. It allowed us to compare the DNA in a patient’s cancer cells and their normal somatic DNA to find differences and changes. While at the time it cost millions to sequence one genome, we can now do it for a few hundred dollars. The increasing affordability of genome sequencing means that researchers like me can get into the nitty gritty of what causes individual cancers. When we can do that, we can finally start thinking about how to treat patients as individuals. Also, around the same time in 2002, the first ever targeted chemotherapy drug called Gleevec (imatinib) was licensed and has been used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, which incidentally has BCR/ABL. Janet Rowley not only discovered the fusion, but was influential in the drug development process too. The drug has minimal side effects in that it mainly leaves other cells alone by targeting just the cells with the fusion. Before this drug, patients with CML had a survival rate of 10 per cent, five years from diagnosis, which is pretty dismal. Today, the survival rate is around 90 per cent just based on that drug and other related drugs developed after it. It was a heck of a breakthrough. Gleevec set the ball rolling for the development of more targeted drugs, and the number in development has continued to mushroom.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I’m really passionate about letting people know what we are doing here at SickKids and in the worlds of research and science. I do a lot of science communication and public engagement on social media to shine a light on new breakthroughs and what it might mean for the everyday person. I’ve also been selected to present a TED Talk in Tanzania in August 2017 on cancer survivorship. In my personal life, I’ve done several half marathons and a marathon, and enjoy running around Toronto and on the lakefront.

6. What inspires your work?
When I was young, I was diagnosed with leukemia. In the mid-1990s, I was told my chances of surviving were around 60 to 65 per cent. Today, survival rates are closer to 90 per cent for childhood leukemia. It was definitely a worse situation 20 years ago and I lost an awful lot of friends on the ward. Now, I’m working in a lab that does a lot of research on brain tumours.

7. Why SickKids?
It’s always been a place I was interested in coming to. During my one-month placement last year, I was able to work in a lab on the 14th floor of the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning researching the side effects of childhood leukemia treatment. I was lucky enough to be offered a job here, where the research output is fantastic and there is an overwhelming feeling of teamwork and pride about working at SickKids. There is this wonderful ethos of helping out others. It’s also so great being so close to the hospital. I feel very connected with the clinical and support staff, and it's great being able to interact with clinical trial coordinators, other doctors and even occasionally the patients. Everybody is just one big family at SickKids. I think that’s something that you don’t necessarily get everywhere.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Undeniably we need better treatment for people who don’t survive childhood cancer. However, we are getting to a point with leukemia where 90-plus per cent of children survive and are reaching ever increasing ages after treatment. We’re now learning more about how childhood cancer treatments can cause health problems later on in life. The treatment that someone like me received at eight years old has an impact on health and quality of life later on.

One of the big questions we need to look at is: “Are we sometimes giving too much treatment?” Can we actually lay off a little bit to minimize both the short- and long-term side effects of leukemia treatments? This is fraught with difficult and controversial considerations though. How do you start to think about posing that question to a parent with a child with leukemia? The majority of children are reasonability healthy afterward but we are now finding that some do suffer long-term effects of treatment. We have to work to refine our treatments to make sure that yes, we cure the patient, but we also make minimal impact on their health long term.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think there is this mentality that to do research is to go to school and study math and science. They are important to the work but research science is also a creative profession. You only have to look some of the most prominent scientists both in history and in the present to see that they have skills and hobbies outside of the lab. I would tell anybody considering a research career to not pigeonhole yourself too soon both with your studies. If you love to play music or sports or paint or whatever, do that too. That creativity will contribute to your research as well.

August 2017