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Newly funded scientist will develop innovative tools for precision prevention and early detection of cancer

With the aging world population, poor lifestyle choices (obesity, tobacco, alcohol) and environmental factors (air pollution), Dr. Sushant Kumar, a scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, believes we are at the cusp of a cancer "epidemic" and, therefore, we need to develop a more proactive approach. It’s a belief he’s putting into action with funding from a 2024 Terry Fox New Investigator Award.

Over the next three years, Dr. Kumar will leverage genetic sequencing to develop innovative computational tools to accurately predict individuals who may develop hereditary or aging-related cancers.

“We envision that these tools will provide novel molecular insights to facilitate early cancer detection at the population level,” he says. “Compared to the standard practice of treating cancer after diagnosis, precision prevention and early cancer detection efforts can facilitate more effective treatment and fewer side effects to improve patients' overall survival and quality of life.”

To do so, his lab will leverage genome sequencing to identify genetic markers capturing interactions between inherited and aging-induced mutations critical for transforming healthy tissue into cancers. Individuals flagged with these genetic signatures and deemed “high risk” would then be observed using liquid biopsy, a non-invasive blood test capable of detecting cancer markers in circulation.

This approach would allow for immediate intervention if a cancer were to develop, rather than finding and treating cancers after the onset of symptoms—often after the cancer has reached advanced stages or perhaps even spread to other parts of the body.

While this tool will be applied to all cancer types, Dr. Kumar’s team will be working closely with the Mammary-OMICS Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant group led by Dr. Rama Khokha at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre to test this approach in identifying genetic precursors underlying breast cancer.

“It’s super exciting to receive this prestigious award,” says Dr. Kumar. “This is an ambitious project with some really big, bold ideas that wouldn’t traditionally fit into a project grant, so I’m grateful that The Terry Fox Research Institute is willing to support.”