Outsmarting breast cancer, one cell at a time
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.”