Lab Canada

BC agency research probes the progress of cancer

Vancouver, BC – Understanding the genetics of lymphoma may bring cancer researchers new insights about the molecular changes that cause other cancers to become dangerously malignant. A team of researchers at the BC Cancer Agency are conducting a series of research projects focused on follicular lymphoma as a unique model of how cancer progresses at the molecular level.

Dr Joseph Connors, head of clinical investigation at the agency, is leading the team over the next three years. They chose follicular lymphoma based on their extensive experience of this type of lymphoma, and its special biological characteristics, such as its linkage to the protein BCL2 that blocks the normal process of cell death.

“We’re looking at a basic process, in how lymphoma becomes malignant in the first place and what changes occur to turn it from a benign disease to a life-threatening kind of cancer,” explains Dr Connors. “Lymphoma is unique in the time it takes to do this, and it does so in identifiable steps. This allows us to focus on that change and see what accumulates in the malignant cells.”

While this project does concentrate on lymphoma, the research will provide insights into cancer biology for other cancer types as well. All cancers become more aggressive and invasive with time. Because follicular lymphoma sometimes undergoes an abrupt transformation, it should be possible to focus on the specific changes that permit the sudden development of more dangerous behaviour.

Understanding how this transformation occurs should increase scientists’ understanding of how cancers, in general, grow more aggressive. And because these later stages are when cancers, particularly follicular lymphoma, become life threatening, a clearer understanding of these stages should suggest treatments that will be effective at a time when many existing treatment fail.

To conduct this research, Dr Connors gathered a team of BC Cancer Agency investigators: Dr Randy Gascoyne (hematopathology), Dr Doug Horsman (cytogenetics), Dr Marco Marra (genome sciences), and Dr Wan Lam (molecular genetics).

“We have assembled a team that few other places in the world would be able to create,” says Dr Connors. “The BC Cancer Agency has researchers with a keen interest in genomics, pathology, and epidemiology all in one place.”

It was the uniqueness of this team that helped to secure a $3.4 million grant from the Terry Fox Foundation, via the National Cancer Institute of Canada. The New Frontiers Program Project Grant supports collaborating scientists conducting interrelated research projects. This integration guarantees that progress made in one area is rapidly available to the work being done by others.

The team of BC Cancer Agency lymphoma researchers are now leaders and collaborators in three major research initiatives working with scientist around the world. The first initiative, with the US National Cancer Institute, is the Lymphoma/Leukemia Molecular Profiling Project. It has validated the use of gene expression profiling to identify new types of lymphomas, and new gene pathways in currently recognized lymphomas, so they can be targeted with novel treatments. The second, sponsored by the Lymphoma Research Foundation, is an intense analysis of an uncommon but difficult-to-treat lymphoma mantle cell lymphoma.