UW student awarded grant for prostate cancer research


After graduating from McMaster’s kinesiology program, Katie Di Sebastiano chose UW for her PhD research because of its great reputation and specific research interests. She also recently became the recipient of the Constantine Karayannopoulos Graduate Studentship Award. The award came in the form of a $40,000 grant from Prostate Cancer Canada and will be beneficial for prostate cancer survivors through nutrition and exercise research.

“The Kin department has a great reputation of producing high-level scientists, [and] I really liked the research that my supervisor, Dr. Marina Mourtzakis was doing,” said Di Sebastiano.

Mourtzakis’ research focuses on how nutrition and exercise affect muscle metabolism in healthy individuals and those with cancer. This is what attracted Di Sebastiano to UW, as her focus is on nutrition and exercise in prostate cancer patients, who may gain fat mass while losing muscle mass. 

“It’s an excellent opportunity to use nutrition and exercise in these populations to sort of prevent some of those long term effects,” she said.

Di Sebastiano’s research will hopefully provide some answers as to the body compositions of those who have prostate cancer. Every person consumes food energy while expending energy through exercise, but this balance is unknown to those with cancer. Certain forms of therapy, such as ADT (androgen deprivation therapy), reduce androgen hormones, which reduces testosterone levels. This eventually leads to weight gain and a decrease in muscle mass.

“If you’re looking at body composition, those are two factors that really play a significant influence,” she said, referring to nutrition and exercise. The role they play in examining the health of prostate cancer patients is crucial and requires further research.

“It’s a very complex interaction that we don’t understand fully in this population of prostate cancer patients.”

Di Sebastiano has finished her thesis proposal and is focusing on research for her dissertation, which she plans to finish in December of 2014.  Originally from Aurora, Ontario, she says she would be happy living anywhere she can continue researching the area of prostate cancer.

“I know that I do want to be a scientist eventually. Either a professor or clinical research scientist would be my ultimate career goal I guess.”

Di Sebastiano recommends that undergraduate students looking into graduate programs spend some time checking out the hands on research in the labs or the research interests of the professors involved in the program to best locate the right area of study. 

“I would say as an undergraduate student, the best thing that you can do would be to start working in different laboratory settings to see if research is something you’re really interested in. Whether it’s volunteering, or I know in the kinesiology department, there’s plenty of courses you can take that actually allow you to work in the labs. So that’s really the best place to start if research is something that you’re considering.”

Di Sebastiano is one of the five PhD candidates from across Canada that were chosen for Prostate Canada’s graduate studentship awards.