Outsmarting breast cancer, one cell at a time

26 February 2013

Toronto -

– Researchers in Vancouver are looking at how breast cancer cells in patients mutate and evolve over time, which can lead to the disease becoming resistant to treatment.

With a $1.25 million grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Sam Aparicio and his team will answer questions about how breast cancer arises, grows and mutates. The researchers will use sophisticated techniques to analyze DNA from individual breast cancer cells and then observe how the cells change in response to different conditions, such as chemotherapy drugs. The research has the promise for global impact in terms of understanding the disease as well as improving diagnosis, treatment and patient outcomes.

“Cancer is a moving target. By predicting its actions and directions, we gain a huge advantage in better understanding the disease and how to stop it,” says Dr Aparicio, a senior scientist at the BC Cancer Agency.

To date, scientists have had only a poor understanding of how genetic changes in breast cancer tumours develop and evolve. When this evolution takes place, cancer cells behave differently and can become resistant to treatment and invade and spread to other parts of the body.

But recent technological advances – such as next-generation DNA sequencing devices, coupled with cutting-edge computer algorithms and statistical models – have made it possible for the Vancouver team to analyze billions of pieces of genetic data from tumour samples to predict which of the thousands of mutations are causing cancer and which ones are harmless.

“It can be compared to the way Google works when you enter a search term and it returns results,” says Dr Sohrab Shah, a scientist who works with Dr Aparicio at the BC Cancer Agency. “Because of this rapid genome sequencing technology, we can now collect an immense quantity of information about the DNA of cancer cells, and make sense of it using computational approaches.”

“This is one of the most transformative moments in cancer research in decades,” says Dr Shah.

In this study, Dr Aparicio’s team is focusing specifically on an aggressive type of breast cancer known as triple-negative. There are currently no targeted treatments for this type of breast cancer.

“This can be a devastating disease because it is more likely to spread and reoccur,” says Dr Aparicio. “This research will lead us forward so that we can learn how to beat these evolving tumours with combinations of drugs.”

In Canada, breast cancer is one of the leading causes of illness and death in women, and new options are desperately required to better understand, diagnose and treat it. Last year nearly 23,000 Canadian women were diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 5,000 women died of the disease.

Canadian Cancer Society Impact Grants

These are the largest single grants ever offered by the Canadian Cancer Society and have a maximum value of $1.25 million per grant over 5 years. They are highly prestigious and are intended to fund the best, most promising cancer science in the country and move it significantly forward.

Eleven new impact grants were awarded by the Canadian Cancer Society for a total value of more than $13 million. This new funding program is designed to provide a mechanism for scientists to adopt innovations and accelerate the application of new knowledge to address problems in cancer research. These grants have the potential to improve patient quality of life and reduce cancer incidence and deaths.

“We are thrilled to be able to fund these outstanding new research projects that have such tremendous promise,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “In our 75th anniversary year, we remain committed to making a difference in the lives of Canadians by funding the best research and making the most impact against cancer.”

Some of the other grants awarded:

Dr David Huntsman, Vancouver, $1,250,000 – Using advanced genomic approaches including whole genome sequencing, Dr David Huntsman is leading a study to identify driver mutations ‑‑ mutations that cause normal cells to become cancerous ‑ in two of the most deadliest forms of ovarian cancer. Dr Huntsman’s team will pinpoint the genetic mutations that underlie these cancers to identify new biomarkers and treatments as well as strategies to prevent these cancers from occurring in women with pre‑cancerous endometriosis.

Dr Torsten Nielsen, Vancouver, $1,250,000 – Dr Torsten Nielsen has made major progress in the understanding of a rare soft tissue cancer ‑‑ synovial sarcoma – which mainly affects children and young adults and for which standard anticancer therapies offer little benefit. Dr Nielsen is building this work to explore the fundamental biology of similar sarcomas by constructing mice models to study the diseases and identify effective drugs to move new therapies to clinical trials and improve outcomes for patients.

Dr Neil Fleshner, Toronto, $1,250,000 – Metformin, a common diabetes drug, has been shown to have cancer‑fighting properties. Dr Neil Fleshner is leading a clinical trial to test whether metformin can delay the progression of cancer in men diagnosed with low‑risk prostate cancer undergoing “active surveillance”, a treatment strategy involving no immediate radical therapy, in order to spare them from radical therapy in the future.

Dr Ming-Sound Tsao, Toronto, $1,248,401 – The current overall survival rate for lung cancer patients is 15% with a high risk of recurrence and cancer‑related deaths. Dr Ming‑Sound Tsao will be using a strategic combination of advanced genomics techniques to profile 144 non‑small cell lung cancers with the goal of identifying markers that can be used for improving targeted therapies.

Dr Claude Perrault, Montreal, $1,075,000 – Currently, 67,000 Canadians are living with a blood cancer, but only 50% of these patients will be cured using the standard chemotherapy treatment. Dr Claude Perreault is testing a state‑of‑the‑art immunotherapy approach, which has already shown to be effective in mice, to target specific proteins in patients for the treatment of chemotherapy‑resistant blood cancers.

Dr Yves Fradet, Quebec City, $999,470 – Bladder cancer is a common cancer in Western countries and has a high rate of recurrence. A bacteria called BCG can be injected into the bladder to stimulate the patient’s immune system in order to fight the cancer cells and prevent recurrence, although only 60% of patients respond to this therapy. Dr Fradet is searching for new strategies to prevent recurrence by improving the response rate to BCG with new immunotherapy‑based compounds that trigger a stronger immune response, and developing a vaccine against markers specifically found on bladder cancer cells.

For 75 years, the Canadian Cancer Society has been with Canadians in the fight for life. We have been relentless in our commitment to prevent cancer, fund research and support Canadians touched by cancer. From this foundation, we will work with Canadians to change cancer forever so fewer Canadians are diagnosed with the disease and more survive. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website at cancer.ca or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333.

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is the only national charity that supports Canadians with all cancers in communities across the country. No other organization does what we do; we are the voice for Canadians who care about cancer. We fund groundbreaking research, provide a support system for all those affected by cancer and advocate to governments for important social change.

Help us make a difference. Call 1-888-939-3333 or visit cancer.ca today.

For more information, please contact:

Christine Harminc

Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Phone: 416 934-5340