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Vancouver-based team will use advanced genomics to identify better ways to diagnose, treat rare cancers

A team of Vancouver-based scientists is set to continue its groundbreaking research into rare tumours after receiving renewal funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute.

The team led by Dr. David Huntsman (University of British Columbia, BC Cancer) will receive $6-million between June 2018 and June 2023 to study how different cellular features impact the development of rare tumours, known in oncological circles as forme fruste tumours.

“The project’s overall objective is to understand how mutations interact with non-mutational features to promote tumour development, progression and metastasis,” said Dr. Huntsman, a pathologist and ovarian cancer researcher. “With this information, we hope to develop new diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities that target both the mutations and the epigenetic mechanisms through which they operate.”

A rare focus

Using rare tumours such as the ones associated with certain sarcomas provides unique opportunities for researchers, practitioners and patients alike, according to Dr. Huntsman.

This occurs for several reasons. For one, a lack of research in this area means that there is still a great need to find new ways to help improve diagnosis and survival for people who get these cancers.

But as Dr. Huntsman explains, forme fruste tumours are also great models to use when trying to better understand cancer because they tend to be relatively simple, meaning that the biology within them is “less cluttered”. This makes it easier to analyze what is going on within each cancerous cell, allowing scientists to start understanding how and why certain cancer-related genes are expressed, which, in turn, could allow them to unlock the overall biology of all cancers, including common ones.

“Through the history of medicine, whenever there’s been a big technological or intellectual leap forward, a disproportionate amount has always been learned from studying rare diseases,” said Dr. Huntsman. “That’s why we’re convinced that the study of forme fruste cancers can inform the whole cancer problem.”

Building on past successes

This is the third time that the Huntsman-led team led has been awarded a Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant. The first phase of funding ran from 2010 to 2013, while the second phase extended from 2013 to 2018.

“The first few phases of the project were instrumental in identifying key mutations associated with certain forme fruste tumours,” Dr. Huntsman said. “Now we will see the project transition into one that looks to see how those mutations interact with non-mutational elements within a cell to cause cancers and create key hurdles that need to be overcome if we are going to have effective treatment.”  

In their previously funded work, the team made several key advances, including:

The goal for this new phase in the project is to use advanced genomics to continue building on these discoveries.

“The only way you can do this type of research is through a team grant,” Dr. Huntsman said. “The New Frontiers Grant is Canada’s premiere grant for team science cancer research and has allowed us to take on a large challenge – something much greater than any of us would be able to tackle as individuals – and be able to deliver discoveries that would otherwise be impossible to find.

Previously funded project: Genomics of forme fruste tumours: new vistas on cancer biology and treatment (2013-2018)