Top research stories of 2011

01 January 2012

January 2012 — Canadian Cancer Society-funded researchers continue to discover ways to reduce cancer incidence and mortality and enhance the quality of life for Canadians living with and beyond cancer. Here are the top 10 research stories of 2011.

1. Landmark trial finds exemestane significantly reduces risk of breast cancer
A large international clinical trial investigating a new way to prevent breast cancer in women at increased risk of developing the disease found that the drug exemestane reduces this risk by 65 per cent compared with placebo. The trial was led by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, which is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. This discovery was recognized by the American Society of Clinical Oncology as one of the world’s most important cancer treatment breakthroughs in 2011.

Reference: The New England Journal of Medicine, June 2011

2. New surveillance protocol improves survival for individuals at high risk for cancer
A Toronto research team led by Dr David Malkin found that a new cancer surveillance protocol dramatically improves survival for adults and children with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a hereditary disease that significantly increases a person’s susceptibility to cancer. The study found that those under surveillance had a 100 per cent survival rate after cancer was detected. For those not under surveillance the survival rate was 21 per cent.

Reference: The Lancet Oncology, June 2011

3. Discovery of human blood stem cell could end search for bone marrow
With his research team in Toronto, Dr Dick identified a human blood stem cell that is capable of regenerating the entire blood system. This breakthrough finding could lead to new ways of treating cancer and other debilitating diseases more effectively.

Reference: Science, July 2011

4. Practice-changing trial shows additional radiation decreases cancer recurrence
A Canadian-led clinical trial has found that additional radiation treatment improves disease-free survival in women with early breast cancer and reduces the risk of cancer recurrence – a finding that could change the standard treatment for these women. Interim analysis of the results showed a greater than 30 per cent improvement in disease-free survival for those receiving additional radiation therapy. The trial was led by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, which is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. This discovery was recognized by the American Society of Clinical Oncology as one of the world’s most important cancer treatment breakthroughs in 2011.

Reference: American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, June 2011

5. New insight into genetics of ovarian cancer development
Dr Sherif Abou Elela in Sherbrooke screened ovarian cancer cells and identified several variants in their genetic material that control growth and survival. This work provides important insight into the genetic factors that contribute to the development of ovarian cancers and cancer biology in general.

Reference: Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, May 2011 

6. Drug “holiday” will change standard of care for men with recurring prostate cancer
A trial led by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, which is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, found that men with prostate cancer who are treated with intermittent courses of androgen-suppressing (hormone) therapy live as long as those receiving continuous therapy. The results are expected to change current treatment protocols and reduce some of the side effects of hormone therapy, including impotence. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) where the research was selected as the “Best of ASCO”.

Reference: American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, June 2011

7. New imaging method could more accurately detect lung cancer
Dr Haishan Zeng in Vancouver led a pilot study testing a new technology – laser Raman Spectroscopy (LRS) – to determine if it could improve the detection of lung cancers. Dr Zeng and his research team found that LRS was able to detect pre-cancerous lesions with a 96 per cent sensitivity and a 91 per cent specificity, when used in combination with existing methods. The application of LRS, which was developed in British Columbia, could improve early detection of lung cancer and reduce the number of false positives associated with other methods.

Reference: Journal of Thoracic Oncology, July 2011

8. Researcher develops tumour-killing nanoparticles
Dr Gang Zheng in Toronto recently developed a new class of nanoparticles, called porphysomes, which target and destroy tumours. When they collect in tumours, porphysomes convert light from a laser into energy that kills the cancer cells. This work earned Dr Zheng the University Health Network Inventor of the Year award.

Reference: Nature Materials, March 2011

9. Survey finds more young men using smokeless tobacco
The Youth Smoking Survey examined the use of smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff) by youth between 2004 and 2008. They found that in Canada, young men are the prime users of smokeless tobacco, with the highest use being in western provinces and the lowest in Quebec. The findings from this biennial survey help in the development, implementation and evaluation of tobacco control strategies, policies and programs for young people. The survey, funded by Health Canada, was conducted by the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact, which is a Canadian Cancer Society-funded program at the University of Waterloo.

Reference: Canadian Journal of Public Health, September/October 2011 

10. Findings may provide new treatment option for childhood leukemia
Leading the one of the first studies of its kind to investigate the role of the KIR genes in the development of childhood leukemia, Dr Ali Ahmad and his research team in Montreal showed that children that inherited activating KIR genes had a decreased risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The findings provide important insight into the underlying cause of ALL and may also reveal a new therapeutic option by targeting KIR proteins.

Reference: Blood, August 2011


Late-breaking honourable mentions from 2010

Research finds anti-cancer agent no wonder drug
Dr Brenda Coomber and her research team in Guelph found that DCA (dichloroacetate), a drug thought to have anti-cancer properties, is not effective at killing colon cancer cells in mice and, in some instances, causes tumours to grow. DCA has been touted in the popular press as a potential powerful anti-cancer therapy with anecdotal evidence of self medication. The findings underscore the importance of appropriately testing new therapies for cancer patients.

Reference: Cancer Letters, November 2010

Discovery may lead to new diagnostics and treatment for eye cancer
Researchers in Vancouver, led by Dr Catherine Van Raamsdonk, found that 79 per cent of uveal melanomas - the most common type of eye cancer - have mutations in one of two oncogenes (GNA11 or GNAQ). The findings greatly increase our knowledge about uveal melanomas and are already being used to develop new diagnostics and therapies.

Reference: The New England Journal of Medicine, December 2010

Researchers discover new cellular mechanism in cancer development
Dr Marc Therrien in Montreal discovered a new way for a protein called EJC to direct signalling pathways that control cell division. Dysfunctional signalling pathways play a role in the development of many cancers and this work provides new insight into how molecular communication breaks down. The findings were selected by the Faculty of 1000 as a "Must Read" paper and as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of the year in Quebec by the Quebec Science magazine.

Reference: Cell, October 2010

Society-funded researchers honoured
In 2011, scientists funded by the Society received major national awards recognizing their research achievements:

  • Dr Geoffrey Fong received the Canadian Institutes for Health Translation Award for his research that has helped set the global agenda on tobacco regulation. Dr Fong is a professor in Psychology and Health Studies at the University of Waterloo and a researcher with the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact.
  • Drs Allan and Connie Eaves, BC Cancer Agency, received the 2011 Canadian Blood Services Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to the field of transplantation and transfusion medicine in Canada and around the world.
  • Dr Anne-Claude Gingras, Principal Investigator, Scientist, Mount Sinai Hospital, was named to the 2011 list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards by the Women’s Executive Network Foundation in the “Trailblazers and Trendsetters” category. Dr Gingras is renowned internationally for her studies of protein interactions that play a role in the development of cancer, drug resistance and immunity

The following researchers have been elected by their peers to the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of their outstanding scientific achievements. Election to the Royal Society of Canada is one of the highest honours a scholar can receive in the arts, humanities and sciences.

  • Dr Steven Jones , BC Cancer Agency, for his leading contributions to the field of genome informatics.
  • Dr James Rutka, The Hospital for Sick Children, who is a surgeon and scientist with keen interests in the molecular biology of human brain tumours.
  • Dr Frank Sicheri, Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital, who uses x-ray crystallography to understand how signalling proteins compose communication pathways in the cell and how the dysregulation of signalling proteins contributes to human disease.