May 22, 2019

Researcher looks for ways to slow the growth of liver metastasis

Mokarram Hossain receives Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship
University of Calgary's Mokarram Hossain says his research, if successful, could lead to a new treatment for  colorectal cancer liver metastasis that could be used alongside chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
University of Calgary's Mokarram Hossain says his research, if successful, could lead to a new treat

Potentially groundbreaking research that could lead to a more effective treatment for colorectal cancer liver metastasis has earned University of Calgary postdoctoral scholar Mokarram Hossain a two-year prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship. He is one of three UCalgary postdoctoral scholars to receive a Banting fellowship this year.

Dr. Hossain’s research builds on work done by his supervisor, Dr. Paul Kubes, PhD, director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. Kubes published an important paper in 2016 establishing for the first time that immune cells in our peritoneal cavity known as peritoneal macrophages are involved in the healing process for organs such as the liver. The peritoneal cavity contains several vital organs including the liver, the small and large intestines, stomach and pancreas.

The implication of Kubes’ paper is that in addition to helping to heal tissue in the peritoneum, these macrophages may actually work to “heal” cancerous tissue, essentially helping tumours grow faster. Hossain, PhD, is looking for a way to stop that process for cancer in order to slow tumour growth, opening a new form of treatment.

“In the lab we’re seeing that many peritoneal macrophages are going to the liver metastases and helping them grow faster,” says Hossain. “We proposed to image these cells live and see how they are going to the tumour site and identify the mechanism by which they are going to the tumour so we can stop them. And if we can stop them, we can potentially get a new therapy.”

“Since Mokarram joined the lab, he has been like a kid in a candy store using all the cool imaging to uncover new mechanisms in cancer,” says Kubes.  “He has made our environment a better place because of his innovative sharing and helpful disposition.”

Prior to Kubes’ paper, it was thought these macrophage did not move within the peritoneum. It was the innovative work of Kubes' team and the high-powered imaging equipment in his lab that attracted Hossain to UCalgary after he completed his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I received offers from several universities, but the research interests of Dr. Kubes matched perfectly with mine,” says Hossain. “The way he does research, imaging the immune cells live so you can visually see the cells and how they’re interacting is unique. You don’t have many other places in Canada that have this kind of facilities in terms of studying immune cells.”

Often with colorectal cancer cases, by the time a tumour has been diagnosed, the cancer has grown too far, and metastasized, usually to the liver which limits treatment options. Earlier detection combined with a method of slowing wn the growth could help more cancer patients live longer.

“This kind of opportunity is very rare,” says Hossain. “Just being able to somehow impact human health is very rewarding.”

Hossain says he’s already had promising early results in the lab, working with mice. He said if successful, his research could lead to a new treatment that could be used alongside chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“It could be another tool for physicians,” says Hossain. “Cancer cells are really smart, they have many ways of evading attacks on them. You need to attack them from many different directions to prevent their growth.”


The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are administered jointly by the Canadian Institutes of Heath Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. They offer a two-year stipend for successful applicants to conduct specific research outlined in their application.