Saskatchewan researchers working towards new breast cancer treatment

SASKATOON - Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency are in the process of organizing clinical trials for a new breast cancer treatment discovered in the province.

This would mark a potential first with a cancer-related investigation going from bench to trial within Saskatchewan.

Making this possible are a series of discoveries by Andrew Freywald, a researcher in the College of Medicine, and Franco Vizeacoumar, an expert in genome-wide screening and a researcher with the college’s Division of Oncology and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency as well as their research teams.

“Several years ago we discovered a molecule, called EPHB6, on the surface of cancer cells that suppresses the aggressive behavior of breast cancer,” said Freywald. “Breast cancer cells obviously don’t like to have this molecule, because it doesn’t benefit them, so they get rid of it in the majority of breast cancer tumours.”

Freywald and his team initiated a collaborative project with Vizeacoumar. This led to the additional discovery that inhibition of some other molecules selectively suppresses cancer cells with reduced EPHB6 levels in triple-negative breast cancer, the most aggressive breast cancer type, for which there is currently no targeted therapy.

“The key is that there are a number of genes like EPHB6 that are differentially regulated in cancer and one of the biggest challenges is to find the way to use that differential regulation to our advantage,” Vizeacoumar said. “So our advanced technology allows us to actually go in and turn off every single gene in the genome, and then ask a question: ‘Which gene should I turn off so that it kills only cancer cells with certain features, without damaging normal cells?’”

Using this technology, Vizeacoumar and Freywald determined that by targeting a gene called SRC, they could eliminate breast cancer cells and tumours lacking EPHB6, without affecting normal tissues. This is very important, as there are already FDA-approved SRC inhibitors available, which means their research findings can go to clinical trials without additional delays.

“We’re working with the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and the research director there, Deborah Anderson, to get the clinical trial started,” Freywald said. “Currently, we are conducting a study to determine what types of breast cancer patients will benefit from this treatment, from which we can get a sample group for the trial. We are also trying to secure funding that would support this clinical trial.”

The team hopes that the next phase of clinical trials will be initiated within the next two years, if the necessary funding can be secured.

Work to date has been made possible through funding from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

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For more information, please contact:

Kate Blau
Communications Specialist
College of Medicine
University of Saskatchewan
306-966-6059
kate.blau@usask.ca  

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