Dr. Versha Banerji

Five years ago we introduced you to Dr. Versha Banerji, who had just returned home to Winnipeg after four years of research and training at Harvard along with her husband Dr. Shantanu Banerji. The couple, who met in medical school and married, specialized in hematology and medical oncology specialties respectively. Their time at Harvard was sponsored by CancerCare Manitoba and fully supported by donors.

Their plan post-Harvard – return to help build Manitoba’s cancer research program while providing clinical care to patients.

Harvard training promises discoveries in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) research

Dr. Banerji’s research in Acute Myeloid Leukemia held a lot of promise as upon her return she could transfer her discoveries to Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), where CancerCare Manitoba is an acknowledged leader in the field. She was recently granted the Research Manitoba New Investigator Award for her research study Resetting the Clock: Modifying Circadian Rhythm in CLL.

Dr. Banerji, a clinician scientist at CancerCare Manitoba, and senior scientist at CancerCare Manitoba’s Research Institute competed against scientists from around the province, every university and research program, and is thrilled she was able to receive this prominent award.

“Typically these awards go to scientists with one hundred per cent protected time for research. It’s harder for clinicians with dual responsibilities as a clinician scientist to prove that they’re equally worthy,” she says.

As a doctor balancing her work in the clinic with her research, she would need some way to compete with scientists who could devote all of their resources to research. That’s where the generosity of the Foundation’s donors came in, because without you, none of this would have been possible.

“Thanks to the Foundation’s donors, I had a generous start-up that allowed me to get my feet wet, buy new equipment, hire staff, and recruit a post-doc fellow,”says Dr. Banerji. “This allowed me to generate data so I could actually apply to other granting agencies to secure other funds.”

Your contributions have been essential to this amazing work, as your trust in Dr. Banerji’s research meant she could focus on CLL and the fight against cancer, instead of worrying about finances. And now with this new award, that steady focus can continue as she will receive $75,000 for each of the next three years.

I think this award shows how committed the Foundation’s donors are to my success,” she says. “And it demonstrates that CancerCare Manitoba can protect its clinician scientists, so that they can be equally successful in the future. It’s good for all parties involved.”

Connecting the dots on the shift-work effect

Dr. Banerji’s groundbreaking research is in the connection between the circadian rhythm and CLL. The circadian rhythm is essentially your body‘s clock; it is the physical, mental and behavioral changes in your body that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle and respond to light during the day/night cycle. Your circadian rhythm can be changed by travelling through different time zones on an airplane, rotating between night shifts and day shifts, mental health problems, and many other factors. She’s examining these physiological variables and seeing the affect it has on cancer cells.


“I’ve been very aware of the epidemiological studies that say people who do shift-work are more likely to get cancer,” she says. “It includes people with metabolic disorders, diabetes, or who just have disrupted circadian rhythms.”

Since it’s shown that an agitated circadian rhythm can have negative health effects, particularly when it comes to cancer, this leaves Dr. Banerji ready to search for answers.

With this new grant, a lot of those answers will come from her experiments with light and dark chambers, using different treatments and seeing their effects. She’ll be able to look at the problem in two ways. One will be taking those already affected by a disrupted circadian rhythm, then altering it and targeting that to help kill cancer cells. The other is modulating the circadian rhythm to prevent cancer from even happening in the first place.

But it won’t be so simple and straightforward. “With genes, it’s complex. There are genes that control other genes which regulate circadian rhythm, but those genes also regulate tissues in all the different parts of your body so that they don’t grow at the wrong time,” she says.

This means she won’t just be going into the lab and altering cells haphazardly. Instead, she will be carefully looking at these cancer cells and checking for gene abnormalities, and looking for ways to normalize them and prevent the cancer from growing further. If she’s able to make a link like that, then perhaps she can prevent cancer from growing at all. What makes this type of research even more special is that it simply hasn’t been done by anyone yet.

The Five W’s

“There are large clinical epidemiological studies which have correlated that cancer and shift-work are linked but there is no direct study in each cancer type. No one has said ‘this is a CLL cell, this is the gene expression pattern at baseline, and how it has changed to become more aggressive is related to changes in circadian rhythm.’ Maybe if we treat them with different drugs or even low doses of drugs, we can modulate the circadian cycle. No one has done that before.”


One great thing Dr. Banerji points out about this research is that is that it ultimately promotes healthy living in ways that aren’t as obvious.

“It gives more credence to the exercise physiology and health prevention modes, because we can actually link that circadian regulation, hopefully, in the future,” she says. “Everyone says exercise is good for you, but maybe this is why.”

And her eye on the future doesn’t stop there. The ambitious doctor already knows what she needs to do next.

“I’ve tapped into all the local funding that I can, and now I’m trying to gain traction so that I can get some national funding too.”

The remarkable progress of Dr. Banerji’s research has been made possible by your generous support of the Foundation. What she knows today compared to five years ago is like “night and day.”

Dr. Kirk McManus

Some of the world’s best and brightest cancer researchers are working right here in Manitoba.

Many of these researchers are graduate students. At CancerCare Manitoba’s Research Institute in Oncology and Hematology (RIOH), grad students are making important discoveries that will lead to new advances in the treatment of colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in North America.

Dr. Kirk McManus, Associate Professor and Senior Scientist at RIOH, says CancerCare Manitoba Foundation studentships are critical to driving cancer research forward.

The critical path towards curing colorectal cancer

“It’s critical that new blood and new ideas can come to the forefront, and many of our students have received numerous awards,” he adds. “Studentship funds go directly to the students themselves, which allows them the freedom to continue their research and attend conferences to further and share their learning.”

Dr. McManus’s lab has two major research interests involving chromosome instability, which has proven to be a precursor to cancer development.

Dr. Kirk McManus_interior image_post

“We want to identify the mutated genes that cause cancer, and see if we can design therapies that specifically exploit those mutated genes. Our research will support novel drug therapies and targets,” he explains.

“If cancer is represented by Diet Coke, we’re looking for the Mentos. We’re looking for something that can cause an explosion and kill the cancer.”

Dr. McManus’s team has identified defects in numerous genes, including RAD54B, that cause abnormal chromosome numbers. These abnormalities are known to drive tumor development.

With this discovery, they are now working to identify and validate a drug that can selectively kill RAD54B-defective colorectal cancer cells.

Donor dollars fund vital research

CancerCare Manitoba Foundation’s operating grants and studentships support two PhD students, four full-time master students, an undergrad research assistant, and two technicians in Dr. McManus’s lab.

“Our research is hugely impacted and accelerated by the studentships funded through the Foundation. We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are right now without them,” says Dr. McManus. “We need to train the next generation of researchers. It’s all about paying it forward.”


Laura Thompson is one of those researchers. The fourth-year PhD student has been recognized for her work in identifying the genes responsible for chromosome stability.

Her position is paid for via a two-year award supplied by CancerCare Manitoba Foundation and Research Manitoba. The resources available at CancerCare Manitoba, which include patient samples from the tumor bank, have greatly assisted Thompson in her groundbreaking research.

“If we understand how chromosome instability occurs, we can better treat these cancers,” she says. “At CancerCare Manitoba I’ve had a lot of opportunities I might otherwise not have had. I’ve been able to perform excellent research in this lab.”

Dr. McManus’s team of research students has received national and international attention for their work, presenting their findings worldwide and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

“Grad students are very important for driving the research forward in the lab. We perform the experiments, collect the data, and analyze the data,” says Thompson. “Funding is critical. We need funding for all of our grad students, and it’s important to get funding from outside sources. The quality of the work we do wouldn’t be possible without it.”

Thanks to your donations, CancerCare Manitoba continues to attract and retain young researchers like Thompson, who are our greatest hope in the fight against cancer. Together, we can — and are — making a difference.

Your generosity made this Canadian first possible

Donor generosity is enabling Manitoba to be a national leader. Thanks to your incredible investment, prostate cancer patients have access to leading-edge radiation treatments here at home. Your steadfast commitment is helping cure men living with this disease. Men like John Unger.

John reflects his prostate cancer diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise to him. What did come as a surprise though was there was an advanced treatment on the horizon – and he was first in line in Canada to receive it.

“When I got the diagnosis, I already suspected I probably had prostate cancer,” says John, a young-at-heart 70-something. “But finding out there was a new treatment which was going to make it a heck of a lot more acceptable was very good news.”

In November 2019, John began his radiation treatment using a new system – Calypso – which precisely targets cancer cells while limiting radiation exposure to the surrounding tissue. He is very grateful to donors, as he appreciates your support helped bring this technology to Manitoba.

The targeting capability of Calypso ultimately leads to much-improved treatment experience for the patient, one which is considerably shorter and less damaging.

“Without Calypso, Mr. Unger and others like him would typically come in once a day for seven weeks and receive very low doses of radiation at each visit,” said Dr Boyd McCurdy, head of CancerCare Manitoba’s Radiation Oncology Physics Group. “Thanks to your investment, they now only come in once a week for five weeks.”

And because the delivery of radiation is so precise, damage to surrounding tissues, organs and even bone is almost nonexistent.

It simply means thanks to you, more people will survive following cancer treatment.

“Calypso essentially decreases the patient’s chances of short and long-term side effects so they live healthy, long and normal lives and still receive excellent cancer control,” said Dr Rashmi Koul, Medical Director of CancerCare Manitoba’s Radiation Oncology Program.

So how exactly does Calypso work? It’s a real time tracking system for cancer cells. It uses three tiny beacons, each smaller than a grain of rice, inserted directly into a patient’s cancerous tissue. Calypso checks the position of the beacons 25 times a second as a radiation beam is being administered.

If the prostate moves more than the allocated distance – usually about three millimetres – the beam switches off. When the prostate moves back into the target area, the treatment machine will seamlessly pick up where it left off and continue with the radiation.

Calypso was initially used for lung cancer patients and now thanks to your donations, is the standard treatment here in our province for those with prostate cancer who qualify for this new treatment.

New ground is truly being broken in Manitoba and this would not be possible without your support. This leading-edge technology comes with a high sticker price, ringing in at over $400,000. Plus the beacons cost hundreds of dollars each.

Donor dollars enabled CancerCare Manitoba to be the premier cancer centre in the country to purchase and implement the Calypso system.

Your contributions helped John in a very direct and positive way. He completed his treatment with almost no side effects and is now living cancer free and very well. He has a contagious spirit and his grin widens when he shares all the wonderful times he’s having with family and friends.

His message of gratitude to you comes from deep within his heart.
“To the donors who have supported the Foundation and made it possible to bring this new technology to Manitoba, I say thank you so much and please keep it up. And gosh, without you, what would we do?” – John Unger

Sean’s Story

It was only a month before Sean’s wedding, when life as he knew it changed forever.

Diagnosed with a rare form of aggressive, incurable thyroid cancer, the future now looked uncertain for Sean and his fiancé Aly.

Our donors generous past support helped fund the genetic testing that eventually led to Sean’s diagnosis.

Over the last two years doctors and scientists have been building infrastructure in the genomics lab to enable genetic testing at CancerCare Manitoba. They could not have done it without the help of our donors. The earlier patients are diagnosed, the better their chance at recovery – and donor-funded local testing helps speed their time to diagnosis.

In the fall of 2017, after qualifying for genetic testing, Sean learned that he carried the hereditary gene – MEN2A – which increased his chances of developing thyroid cancer.

Immediate surgery was recommended and within a few months Sean underwent a complete thyroidectomy. With the support of Aly, his family and friends, he seemingly made a full recovery and had one of the busiest years of his life. Preparing for a wedding, starting a new job and travelling the world, Sean was truly making the most of every day.

Then Sean’s life was once again turned upside down.

At his one-year follow up appointment, testing showed abnormal levels of calcitonin in his blood – a possible sign of thyroid cancer. Sean and Aly feared the worst. After undergoing more in-depth testing in June 2019, just over a month before his wedding, doctors gave Sean the heartbreaking news that he had advanced cancer.

“We met with Dr. Gordon, and that was the day everything crumbled apart.”

Sean’s cancer was in his lymph nodes, chest, trachea, lungs and liver. It was rare. It was aggressive. And there was no cure. The only treatment available could slow the cancer, but it would still progress. With a prognosis of one to four years, Sean knew he had to live his life to its fullest. His wedding to Aly proceeded 36 days after his diagnosis and is one of the happiest days of his life.

Sean’s cancer journey then took a turn in the right direction.

He was accepted into a clinical trial for a therapy that would specifically target the MEN2A genes causing his cancer. Incredibly, within four months of starting on the trial the tumours in Sean’s body had shrunk significantly, showcasing the tremendous power of treatments based on an individual’s genetic profile.

Our donors loyal support, which enabled Sean to be tested for this rare gene mutation at CancerCare Manitoba, has made a real difference.

The next, critical step in improving and expanding genomic testing for Manitobans requires support from donors like YOU . Processing genome sequences requires a tremendous amount of computer processing power – more than humans could ever do.

Gifts from donors will fund the $64,000 data platform that will enable research scientists to analyze a wider variety of genomic sequences and to do so much more quickly.

Doctors will use the software on an almost daily basis as they work to uncover rare and abnormal gene sequences. This data will help them identify appropriate cancer treatments and develop new therapies.

You can help expand genomic testing in Manitoba and help save lives.

Expanding the genomic testing program will allow more patients to be provided with treatments directly linked to their individual genetic circumstances – improving patient outcomes and ultimately saving lives.

Today Sean is focused on living his life to the fullest. He continues to undergo regular scans and bloodwork to monitor the cancer in his body. On his last scan, the cancer cells were nearly undetectable.

While this is promising news, it’s time-limited.

Eventually Sean’s body will become immune to the cancer therapy treatments and start to fight back. His levels of calcitonin will increase. The cancer will return.

Your gift today will ensure advancements in genomics research continue at CancerCare Manitoba so there will be another option available in the future for Sean, and for other Manitobans like him.

Being diagnosed with cancer has changed Sean’s outlook on life. The small things don’t matter as much anymore and he’s focused on what’s most important – making the best of every day along with his supportive wife Aly and his loved ones.

Please consider making a donation today in support of advancing research in Manitoba, and in support of Manitobans living with cancer like Sean.

You Make Local Research A Reality for Manitobans like Hargun

When paired with the latest advances in technology, your generosity is helping scientists at the CancerCare Manitoba Research Institute provide tomorrow’s treatments today to Manitobans. Dr. Jody Haigh and his team are researching what causes cancer cells to replicate and spread. By altering cancer cells at a microscopic level, they are better able to understand the role genes play in cancer development. This understanding may lead to development of new therapies targeting these genes. Thanks to the amazing generosity of almost 700 donors who responded to last year’s annual Giving Tuesday campaign, Dr. Haigh and other scientists have a new key piece of equipment which will help further their understanding: a new ultracentrifuge.
“The ultracentrifuge is essential to the work we do,” said Dr. Haigh. “It spins at a rate of 3% the speed of light breaking down and purifying matter to the smallest of particles. It allows us to speed up our research.”
Their research, enhanced by the new ultracentrifuge, may be especially significant for leukemias, the type of cancer affecting Hargun, the spirited 8-year-old we introduced you to last fall. Before being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at just seven years old, she was a healthy, energetic, playful kid who loved to dance and to play with her cousins.
“Hargun understands everything. When our doctor explained that Hargun had a form of blood cancer we were in shock. That night holding onto us, she asked if she would die. We had no answers for her,” said Hargun’s mother, Shelly.
Thanks to the support of donors like you Hargun was able to join a local clinical trial to treat her leukemia. After several long months in the hospital, including a very scary five week stay in the intensive care unit, Hargun’s treatment began to make a difference and she was finally able to return home. While Hargun’s cancer journey is not over – she still takes daily chemotherapy medication, has monthly visits to the hospital for intravenous medication and regular visits for invasive spinal taps – it is thanks to your continued dedication to furthering discoveries that Hargun and her family have hope for the future. Without your generous support of local cancer research, including equipment like the ultracentrifuge, Hargun’s story could have been dramatically different. It is thanks to your dedication and vision, we may yet see a future where Hargun and other children like her no longer have to hear the words ‘you have cancer’.

Your support of local research saves lives

Cancer has been a part of Peggy Miller’s life for nearly thirteen years. The vibrant 69-year-old was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), a blood cancer, in 2008. It’s one of the most common cancers affecting people over age 65.

CLL is rarely curable, a reality Peggy knows well. It’s very treatable though, due in large part to research which you have helped fund. Thanks to your support, Manitoba is internationally recognized for its CLL research and clinical excellence.

“Research means everything to solving this disease. Donor funds are needed to make this happen,” says Peggy.

For years Peggy’s cancer didn’t require any treatment but that changed in 2014. Fortunately, there was a donor-funded clinical trial available to her. This trial tested a new drug designed to prolong remission for CLL patients. Peggy received three rounds of chemotherapy which positively and tremendously impacted her quality of life. Six years later, she is doing amazingly well.

“I feel very fortunate to have been a study patient,” remarks Peggy. “I am so blessed to be ok after all these years and I’m grateful to donors for your support of research and trials.”

Peggy is living proof the research you contribute to at CancerCare Manitoba changes lives for the better. Simply put, your commitment has helped make advancements possible for CLL and many other cancers.

“Our ultimate goal is to prevent cancer, detect it early, treat it better and improve the quality of lives of patients who are living with cancer. To do these things we need research,” said Dr Neil Watkins, director of the Research Institute and Hematology Centre at CancerCare Manitoba and the University of Manitoba. “None of the advances which have happened over the years would have happened without research support and donor dollars.”

While research is sometimes viewed as a solitary pursuit which happens deep in a lab, that’s not the way at CancerCare Manitoba. It happens throughout the entire system, from scientific analysis to clinical trials and ultimately to care.

This has not always been the case though. Research has evolved over the past number of decades – from basic science rooted in cancer cells to translational research which brings results to patients – thanks in large part to your investment. This approach and your support of local research are crucial to improving outcomes for Manitobans with cancer.

“We are a comprehensive cancer centre and patients, scientists and physicians interact in many ways,” said Dr Watkins. “This provides a positive effect for everybody because we all understand what we’re here for and why we’re working so hard.”

Donations targeted for local research have consistently shown excellent results as tremendous progress has been made for certain cancers, like breast and prostate. We can’t take our foot off the gas pedal though because for others like lung and pancreatic, we still have a long way to go. Thanks to your contributions, advances are happening for these cancers and there have been some very promising research developments in the last 10 years.

Now more than ever it’s important to continue building on the research and treatment successes donors have supported at CancerCare Manitoba over the last several decades.

“Research and innovation drive treatment. We’re striving toward tomorrow’s treatment. It’s not just the length of lives for survivors; it’s how they live. That’s the biggest change from decades ago to today’s approach,” said Dr Sri Navaratnam, President & CEO of CancerCare Manitoba.

Your support of our broad cancer research program helps recruit and keep the best and brightest scientists and clinicians who are here in Manitoba searching for discoveries which ultimately benefit the people we all care deeply for.

“Having a comprehensive cancer program built on a strong research foundation enables us to attract top-notch talent,” said Dr Navaratnam. “Thanks to your commitment to the Foundation, we are able to have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Your generosity makes research and trials possible in our province. The end and most important result … more effective treatments and a far better quality of life for Peggy and so many others like her living with a cancer diagnosis.