Cancer Champion and Clinical Investigator: Dr Johanne Weberpals

By Cancer Foundation on March 7 / 2017

[Cancer, Clinical Trials, News, Research]Comments

Dr. Johanne Weberpals is looking at cancer research through a whole new lens these days. After her father was diagnosed and treated for cancer, she says she learned a lot from the first-hand account he gave about the treatments he received and the impacts those treatments had on his day-to-day life.

“I think it affects you personally when you see someone you know go through a diagnosis,” she explains. “He was able to describe to me in a very frank way what he was feeling, and how he perceived the information given to him. It really changed my perspective and I was able to see things differently for both myself and my patients.”

As a surgeon and clinician, Dr. Weberpals’ research focuses on gynecological cancers – studying tumours at the molecular level to see if there are certain behaviors in their biologic makeup that may cause them to react differently to certain treatments.

“There is a real need for us to do more basic science and translational research in gynecologic cancer so we can understand these tumours better,” she explains. “And understand which new drugs would be most effective for the patient. This would allow us to give a therapy to patients that has the greatest chance of working and avoid giving a treatment that is unlikely to work while also avoiding potential side effects. This is the key to personalized medicine.”

She has always found cancer to be a very interesting field because she believes there is still so much to unlock and discover.

“In oncology, what we don’t know is so great, it’s endless,” she explains. “We are talking about curing cancer one day, but I also think the little steps that we have made in just understanding women’s cancers over the last 5 to 10 years have really had a tremendous impact. We are now able to offer new therapies to patients through clinical trials and we are seeing some amazing responses. A good example of this is in ovarian cancer.”

Those exciting milestones when new treatment or treatment combination are discovered are what keep her focused on the future. Her research team focuses on the big cancers like ovarian and uterine cancers, but also the rare cancers that have little profile in the public eye like cancer of the vulva and cervix. Just recently, her and her collaborators in pathology have found a new mutation in squamous cell cancer of the vulva that may open up new options for clinical trials for patients with advanced disease.

“There are drugs that we are using and giving to patients today that weren’t available before.  Things have changed for the positive, but there is a lot more that we need to discover to be able to really improve a patient’s prognosis,” she says. “A good understanding of the tumour biology will help researchers and clinicians know how to treat cancer in a more effective way.”

She believes that in the next decade there will be significant advancements in the knowledge about how patients with gynecologic cancers will respond to new drug classes – and that work will be a direct benefit from clinical trials and research taking place right here in our community.

“Cancer changes people – but each day we are working to figure out how to minimize the impacts of the disease and its treatments.”

In honour of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation celebrates Dr. Johanne Weberpals and her team for their work in advancing cancer research for families in our community.

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