Dr. Diana Kraskouskaya completed her PhD in medicinal chemistry at UTM. Her research focuses on developing small molecule receptors and sensors that would fluoresce in the presence of a phosphorylated protein.

Some protein targets are phosphorylated — by the addition of a phosphate group — on certain sites which can either activate or deactivate protein function.

By developing synthetic complexes that are able to recognize the presence or absence of phosphorylated regulatory sequences on proteins, researchers would be able to determine whether or not certain proteins are activated. Generally, activated sites are associated with a diseased state.

“For example, over phosphorylated JAK2 protein [or] over phosphorylated STAT3 protein — those are usually a bad sign in terms of the disease prognosis,” said Kraskouskaya. “So, these chemosensors could ultimately be [used for] diagnostic purposes.”

Since completing her PhD, Kraskousyaka’s role has transitioned — she is now the Senior Research Associate in the Gunning Group and the CEO and co-founder of Dalriada Therapeutics. Dalriada Therapeutics is a U of T spin-out company focused on developing small molecules for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes. The startup investigates the role and applications of DT1, a class of small molecule inhibitors, in the treatment and diagnosis of diseases such as aggressive blood and brain cancers.

“I’m still very involved in the scientific process but now I’m equally involved in the commercialization aspect of it,” said Kraskouskaya on the transition from her PhD studies to her present career.

According to Kraskouskaya, DT1 was discovered by the Gunning Group and it is by far the most promising drug candidate because it interacts with cancer targets via a unique mechanism. DT1 has been found to target aggressive blood and brain cancers in cell-based studies and animal models.

“Our small molecules show significant promise in certain diseases,” said Kraskouskaya. “There [is] definitely a lot of potential that our company will be able to bring much more effective therapies and less toxic therapies for cancer to the clinic.”

Kraskouskaya is a part of the innovate drug discovery space in academia. She notes that the space has a lot of potential. Unlike industrial pharmaceutical companies, academic groups can take on high-risk approaches to drug discovery and develop novel therapies for fighting more aggressive diseases.

However, Kraskouskaya points out that there should be more opportunities for academic groups to take their discoveries to the commercialization stage. “There probably should be more drive and more resources available to the students both at undergraduate and graduate levels to inspire them [to] pursue entrepreneurship careers in drug discovery and development,” she said.

She is hopeful that the UTM Centre for Medicinal Chemistry, launched in 2016, will mend this gap.  

“It will definitely be a game changing institute in Canada because it will provide resources to do cutting edge research in drug discovery at an academic level,” said Kraskouskaya.

She hopes graduate and undergraduate students alike will be driven to take an active role in the development of promising therapies and technologies in the pharmaceutical field.

This article is published as part of a series of profiles in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Editor’s Note (February 18): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dalriada Therapeutics is funded by U of T. U of T does not fund Dalriada Therapeutics.

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