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Better answers for fighting cancer

Better answers for fighting cancer

Canadian researchers are mobilizing genomic innovations to break down cancer’s defenses and formulate more effective, targeted treatments. A recent breakthrough involves connecting relapse in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) to rare therapy-resistant leukemia stem cells that are present at diagnosis and before chemotherapy begins. It’s a finding that could vastly improve the effectiveness of cancer drugs.

Among the mysteries associated with why some cancers are more virulent than others, the question of why acute myeloid leukemia (AML) has such a high relapse rate has long confounded clinicians and researchers. In findings published in the scientific journal Nature in June 2017, Dr. John Dick, a Senior Scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto, traced the origins of relapse in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) to rare therapy-resistant leukemia stem cells that are already present at diagnosis and before chemotherapy begins.

"For the first time, we have married together knowledge of stem cell biology and genetics — areas that historically have often been operating as separate camps — to identify mutations stem cells carry and how they are related to one another in AML," said Dr. Dick, a world-renowned pioneer in the cancer stem cell field who identified leukemia stem cells in 1994.

"Canada has good standing in the field of cancer stem cell research. While we are still in the early stages, Canadians are making quantum leaps toward the improvement of outcomes for patients with cancers that are currently hard to treat."

- Dr. James Till, vice-president, Cancer Stem Cell Consortium 3D rendered close-up of a cancer cell

The results offer crucial insight into the biology of AML, which strikes roughly one in 10,000 Canadians and has a long-term survival rate of only 10 per cent. The results open the possibility of developing targeted treatments based on which cells are most likely to trigger relapse.

“This is a story that couldn't have happened five years ago,” Dr. Dick said of his AML breakthrough, “but with the evolution of deep sequencing, we were able to use the technology at just the right time and harness it with what we've been working on for decades.”

Dr. Dick’s discovery is the fruit of longstanding investment by Genome Canada in cancer stem cell research, a frontier of exploration whose potential has been accelerated incalculably by advances in genomic science over the past two decades. 

Genome Canada was a driver in the creation of the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium (CSCC), established in 2007 to coordinate an international strategy for cancer stem cell research and translate discoveries into clinical applications. Along with Dr. Dick, Drs. Tak Mak of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Guy Sauvageau of Montreal’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, are among other researchers funded by Genome Canada and partners through the CSCC who, with their research teams, have made significant advances that could lead to the development of new cancer therapies. 

More recently, in 2016, the CSCC partners have pledged support for the Stand Up 2 Cancer Canada Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team, led by Dr. Peter Dirks, a neurosurgeon and senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Dr. Samuel Weiss, Director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary. The Dream Team is working to develop novel treatments for brain cancers in children and adults. 

September 2017