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Canada’s top 2013 cancer research stories


Toronto, ON – The Canadian Cancer Society has published a list of the most high-impact research published in 2013 by its funded scientists.

Killing cancer cells with designer viruses: Using an approach known as synthetic biology, Drs John Bell and Jean-Simon Diallo in Ottawa designed two oncolytic (cancer-fighting) viruses with great potential. By blocking antiviral proteins in cancer cells, these viruses are better able to attack cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed. Nature Communications, June 2013

Brain cancer detectives: Up to half of lung cancer patients develop cancers that spread to the brain. But little is known about what promotes this spread (metastasis) and few treatment options are available. Dr Sheila Singh in Hamilton has identified a group of tumour-initiating cells in brain metastasis from the lung, along with a set of genes in patient samples that could predict survival outcomes. These may be useful targets for drugs to block metastasis and could have a powerful impact on the treatment and prognosis of cancer patients. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, April 2013

Tracking prostate cancer: Dr John Lewis in Edmonton has discovered that a protein called CD151 can serve as a biomarker (a molecule that is a sign of a disease) for prostate cancer. Since the protein is involved in the movement of cancer cells around the body, tests that specifically measure CD151 could predict the spread of prostate cancer and help doctors determine the right treatment for patients. Cancer Research, November 2013

Candy-flavoured tobacco study influences government policy : A recent survey by the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact found that high school students who use tobacco choose flavoured products over unflavoured more than half the time. The findings caught the attention of the Ontario government, which introduced legislation in November 2013 to prohibit the sale of candy-flavoured tobacco products. Propel is a research centre funded by the Canadian Cancer Society and is located at the University of Waterloo. Flavoured tobacco use among Canadian youth: Evidence from Canada’s 2010–2011 Youth Smoking Survey, October 2013

Simple question helps restore patient dignity: Terminally ill cancer patients need caregivers to see beyond their illness and understand who they are as individuals. In Winnipeg, Dr Harvey Max Chochinov, an international expert in palliative care, has developed and tested a simple approach to help healthcare professionals build greater empathy with their patients. The Patient Dignity Question (PDQ) asks, “What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best possible care?” By helping healthcare providers feel more connected to their patients, the PDQ helps patients maintain their dignity – a fundamental principle of palliative care. This innovation has been piloted in palliative care settings and select outpatient cancer clinics at CancerCare Manitoba and is the subject of a clinical trial taking place in Dundee, Scotland. One question may help provide dignity at the end of life: study, July 2013

The right dose for liver cancer: New techniques that deliver a precise and high dose of radiation are emerging as safe, non-invasive methods to treat liver tumours. However, little is known about the ideal dose of radiation required. In London, Dr Eugene Wong has determined the amount of radiation required to control primary liver cancer as well as colorectal cancers that have spread to the liver – their most common site of metastasis (spread). These results will guide what doses are prescribed for patients in the future. British Journal of Radiology, July 2013

Preventing workplace cancer: Exposure to cancer-causing substances at work can be reduced with the right assessment tools. In Montreal, Dr Jérôme Lavoué is developing a toolkit to collect and use information on cancer-causing substances in the workplace. He recently published a list of the professions most at risk for silica exposure, which can lead to lung cancer. He is also collaborating with international experts to analyze exposure data from around the world. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, June 2013

Targeting hard-to-treat breast cancer: Triple-negative breast cancer can be extremely hard to treat and has a poor prognosis. In London, Dr Shawn Li has discovered that when a cell protein called Numb interacts with another protein called Set8, Numb loses its ability to hold on to p53, a protein that suppresses the growth of tumours. This complex cellular pathway could explain why chemotherapy is ineffective against some cancers and could provide a strategy to reverse chemo-resistance. Molecular Cell, May 2013

Stopping the spread of cancer: Dr Jean-François Côté in Montreal has shown that the DOCK1 protein plays a key role in the metastasis (spread) of breast cancer. In mouse experiments, Dr Côté found that removing DOCK1 significantly decreased metastases, while higher levels of DOCK1 were found in human breast cancer patients with a poorer prognosis or a recurrence of the disease. This discovery will lead to more targeted breast cancer treatments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, April 2013

A sharper image: Positron emission tomography (PET) scanning is an important imaging technique used to diagnose cancer and monitor the effectiveness of treatment. In Vancouver, Dr David Perrin has tested a new compound that improves the quality of PET imaging, making it faster and more specific and accurate at detecting cancers. Dr Perrin’s research quickly became a highly cited paper in Nuclear Medicine and Biology. Nuclear Medicine and Biology, August 2013

Boosting the immune system to stop the spread of cancer: Natural killer (NK) cells are part of the immune system that play an important role in eliminating cancer cells from the body. But these NK cells lose their ability to work well after a patient has cancer surgery, which may mean an increased risk for metastasis (spread) in some patients. In Ottawa, Dr Rebecca Auer has shown that a vaccine can boost NK cells (shown first in mice and then in a small number of patients). The finding provides the basis for a clinical trial that will test a novel approach to reducing the spread of cancer in patients requiring surgery. Cancer Research, January 2013

Caring for our caregivers: Cancer affects not only patients, but also their caregivers. In Toronto, Dr Camilla Zimmermann determined which factors influence quality of life in
a group of caregivers. She found that quality of life was rated worse if caregivers were women, simultaneously cared for others, cared for particularly ill patients, spent more hours providing care, or had changed their work situation (for example reduced or stopped work). Her research was recognized by the Psychology Progress series for its contributions to advancing the field of psychology. Psycho-Oncology, February 2013

Mapping the obesity problem: Despite growing concern about Canadians’ waistlines, it had been over a decade since maps showing obesity rates in the country were published. But now, Dr Carolyn Gotay in Vancouver has updated this important information. It shows that obesity rates have climbed in the last 11 years, providing the evidence needed to promote action from the public, healthcare providers and decision-makers to improve the health of Canadians. It is estimated that diet, obesity and lack of exercise are responsible for about one-third of all cancers. Canadian Journal of Public Health, January/February 2013

When your own blood cells turn against you: White blood cells are normally a key part of the body’s defences against cancer, but research has shown they may be responsible for helping cancer spread after surgery. Dr Lorenzo Ferri in Montrealhas studied structures in cells, called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs), which are a defence mechanism to trap and kill bacteria and other pathogens to avoid infections (as may happen after surgery). He found that these NETs also catch cancer cells, but instead of killing them, activate them and promote their spread. This finding could lead to new treatments to improve the outcomes of cancer patients requiring surgery. Journal of Clinical Investigation, August 2013

Age matters: Research by Dr Janusz Rak in Montreal hasshown that cancer cells spread, or metastasize, differently in young and old mice. Understanding how the aging process affects cancers – a relatively understudied area – might influence how patients of different ages are treated. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, March 2013