Cancer care

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency (SCA) are making progress in determining how molecular-specific proteins may be linked to certain types of cancer.

By University Communications
"The disease is kind of misunderstood," said Deborah Anderson, associate member of biochemistry in the U of S College of Medicine and senior research scientist with the SCA. "People typically call cancer one thing. Cancer is hundreds of diseases lumped into one label, and there's no single causative agent."

Rather, she said, there are a number of issues at the molecular level that could give rise to it. Additionally, the sheer number of cancer types and variations means there is no one-size-fits-all treatment option for patients. This has prompted a research shift that identifies the cellular irregularities that may be causing the cancer, said Anderson. From there, customized therapies or treatment plans can be designed for each patient that targets the molecular issue in question.

This is the underlying theme in Anderson's latest research venture, which observed a protein found in breast cancer tumors linked to metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. The protein, called CREB3L1, was very prevalent in normal cells and cancer cells that had spread slowly. But the more metastatic cells contained little to no CREB3L1. Adding back CREB3L1 to the cells reduced their metastatic properties, providing strong evidence that the protein may suppress the spread of breast cancer cells.

Anderson, along with co-investigator Franco Vizeacoumar, hopes to identify genes uniquely required for cell survival in the metastatic breast cancer cells that have lost significant amounts of CREB3L1, as compared to the cancerous but non-metastatic cells that are genetically identical. Genes required for survival of the metastatic breast cancer cells are called synthetic lethal genes and represent vulnerability in these cancer cells that are not present in normal cells.

The U of S is in this type of research due to the recruitment of Vizeacoumar to the SCA lastyear, she said. Vizeacoumar brought significant expertise in synthetic lethal analyses.

"Not many people can do the synthetic lethality screens [that we can]," she said. "If you can identify those genes, then test inhibitors to target them, you can identify new treatment strategies for patients with whatever that molecular change might be."

The advent of sophisticated computer technology means that there are a lot of initiatives to take patient tumor samples and do "every kind of analysis we can possibly imagine." Algorithms can then sift through the vast amount of data and identify potential patterns or linkages between what's common, making the process even more efficient.

The goal with all this, said Anderson, is patient care.

"In my lifetime, there will be more of the research that we're doing, translating into patient screening, patient identification, [and] molecular diagnostics to tailor our treatments more specifically to the patient."

Funding for the project was provided by a $100,000 Bridge Grant from the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

Lesley Porter is communications co-ordinator in the Office of Health Sciences Deans.