UVic undergrad Chris Lee publishes two research papers on glioblastoma, wins scholar-athlete award


Chris Lee, a fifth-year student in UVic’s Faculty of Science, recently published two first-author research papers on combatting glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a deadly primary brain cancer.

For the first paper, which was published last August, Lee and his team—under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Willerth—developed a small molecule cocktail to treat GBM by reprograming the cancerous cells. Based on the principles of regenerative medicine, cellular reprogramming occurs when one cell type is converted into another type. In this case, the GBM cells were transformed into neurons.


The team’s work falls under an area of research that focuses on inhibiting GBM cell proliferation. (The current standard GBM treatment requires removal of the tumour followed by radio- and/or chemotherapy.) The cocktail stops the cells from multiplying, just in a novel way.

Lee says his team decided to reprogram the GBM cells into neurons instead of their precursor cell types for one major reason: neurons don’t multiply. This means if the reprogrammed cells ever became cancerous again, there would be the same number of GBM cells as before. (Conversely, the precursor cell types could proliferate, meaning there could potentially be more GBM cells than before treatment if the reprogrammed cells became cancerous again).   

Lee and his team tested the cocktail in a 2D model. “It worked surprisingly well,” he says. The reprogrammed cells displayed decreased viability and lacked the ability to form many tumor-like structures.

However, while commonly used for drug trials, 2D models generally fail to accurately reflect the complex environment cells face in vivo. “With 2D, it’s so far from the real thing,” Lee says.

So, Lee then decided to test the cocktail in a 3D model, which he and another research team created with UVic’s RX1 Bioprinter and a fibrin-based bioink.

Unlike in the 2D model trial, however, Lee says the GBM cells proved themselves “quite resistant” to the cocktail in this trial.

“It wasn’t a good sign for the cocktail, but it was a good sign for the 3D model,” he says.

As Lee and the second team wrote in their resulting paper, which was published in December, the tests indicated a 3D model could potentially offer a more accurate representation of the in vivo response to drug treatment. The bioprinting process replicates a tumour’s natural environment by more accurately placing cancer cells within healthy tissue.

Lee also notes that one of the reasons it’s difficult to create drugs for GBM is that many of the models currently used are expensive and time-consuming; 3D printing, on the other hand, could create these models quickly and on-demand.

When asked why he chose to focus on GBM for his honours project, Lee replied he has a massive passion for neurodegenerative disease. “The brain is easily the most important organ in your body,” he says. “It’s very sad to see people lose the ability to think and function … to have everything about who they are ripped away.”

Just before his second paper was published, Lee also won the Provost’s scholar-athlete award in November. To be considered for this award, student-athletes need a minimum GPA of 6.6. Lee, who plays field hockey, has a GPA of 9.0.To achieve this award, Lee, balanced his heavy class schedule, regular training, and weekly travels to Vancouver for games; he also regular volunteered with varsity council and at Vikes events.