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With his PhD complete, U of T grad to pursue career in drug discovery

Aaron Cabral worked in Professor Patrick Gunning's lab, where he developed new diagnostic methods for drug discovery, tuned drugs to improve their stability and selectivity, and rescued a failed clinical drug candidate (photo courtesy of Aaron Cabral)

Aaron Cabral will earn his PhD in chemistry from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science this week after focusing his research on developing new diagnostic methods for drug discovery research in oncology and neurodegenerative diseases.

Under the supervision of Patrick Gunning, a professor in U of T Mississauga’s department of chemical and physical sciences, Cabral also worked on a platform for chemically “tuning” drugs to improve their stability and selectivity.

The research helped Cabral rescue a previously failed clinical drug candidate for treatment-resistant cancers and patent technology that led to the creation of Dunad Therapeutics.

Cabral recently delivered a speedy overview of his work in U of T’s annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, in which graduate students present their research to non-specialist judges in just three minutes. He took third place.

He says the contest’s online format, necessary due to COVID-19, was interactive and allowed more people to watch the event. “I even had family members watch and cheer me on from their homes during the finals,” he says.

Writer Michael McKinnon recently caught up with Cabral to talk about his research and post-convocation plans.


Why did you decide to pursue your PhD at U of T?

After completing my undergraduate degree at U of T and exploring research through an honours thesis project, I knew I wanted to stay for my PhD. A lot of fascinating research was happening at the department of chemistry, and I especially wanted to stay at the lab I was in: the Gunning group. The lab and department had all the resources and infrastructure in place for me to be able to get real, meaningful results by the end of my PhD tenure. I also recognized how well-respected U of T is globally and I knew the degree would hold high value.

How do you explain your work to people outside your field?

I developed new tools that enable researchers to better study and discover drugs for diseases such as cancer. Within drug discovery, the molecules we synthesize in the lab are tested against a biological target – most often a protein – that is associated with a disease. The tools I created assess whether the target protein is healthy or diseased, which we can use to see if our drugs are working as intended.

How will your work improve the lives of the average person?

My PhD research has provided new tools for the discovery of new drugs to treat cancer and other diseases. These tools should accelerate the drug discovery process and allow more drugs to get to clinical trials, potentially leading to more treatment options for debilitating diseases that affect many families. Our research in tools and techniques for making better drugs will help give every patient a better chance when faced with these life-threatening diseases.

Did your U of T education help prepare you for your new role as business development manager at Dalriada Drug Discovery?

My U of T education has provided me with extensive interdisciplinary knowledge of the drug discovery process, which has been extremely helpful in my new role. During my PhD, I was part of the entire drug discovery process, from the conception of a new drug and chemical synthesis in the lab to biological testing and pre-clinical animal studies. Contributing to these processes has solidified my understanding of the field and has enabled me to discuss the needs, challenges and overall big picture of drug discovery programs with our clients. Also, being part of the patenting process during my PhD has been very valuable for me in understanding the legal aspects of scientific discovery in my new career.

Can you talk about the patented technology you invented?

One of the elements I most appreciated about our lab and U of T was the incentive to patent our discoveries so they could be further developed into meaningful medicines. We patented the useful technologies developed in the lab, which from my work included new diagnostic tools for diseases and a platform to create improved drugs. Some of these inventions are being further developed by newly emerging companies and may lead to real products that will help society in the fight against diseases.

What advice do you have for people considering a PhD in your field or elsewhere?

I am incredibly proud of having completed my PhD. I would recommend to everyone thinking about pursuing a PhD to get involved in research before committing to the large time investment. I would self-reflect and evaluate if your field is exciting to you, which I believe is where the motivation will come from. When you really enjoy your subject, the creativity and solutions to your research questions will come more naturally. However, research can still be tough – and failure does happen – so you need to come in with a good attitude and persistent mindset.  

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