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Internationally significant discovery maps evolution of breast cancer


Vancouver, BC – A paper in the journal Nature highlights how researchers at the BC Cancer Agency are using human breast cancer ‘avatars’ – models of human breast cancers – to measure how complex cancers develop and change over time.

The agency says the research is unprecedented because it uses single cancer cells to expose how breast cancers evolve and how to identify the cell populations that expand and dominate over time.

“We can now look at cancer as a kind of cellular superbug, with the ability to change over time and in response to treatments,” said Dr. Samuel Aparicio, head of the BC Cancer Agency Department of Molecular Oncology, Nan and Lorraine Robertson Chair of Breast Cancer, University of British Columbia, and senior author of the paper. “Because of this research we have a way to identify the cancer ‘super-cells’ and stay one step ahead of disease progression.”

The study is a comprehensive analysis of cancer evolution in lab models. It uses a combination of genomic sequencing and a novel computational model – PyClone – developed by BC Cancer Agency scientist Dr. Sohrab Shah, who is the co-senior author of the study and the Canada Research Chair in Computational Cancer Genomics. The team, including authors Dr. Peter Eirew, Adi Steif and Jaswinder Khattra, were able to measure breast cancers’ evolution over time – resulting in a critical standard for future pre-clinical drug testing. The published findings provide the global cancer community with an invaluable method to track the cell populations and mutations that dominate and emerge as the driving force of a person’s cancer.

“We now have the ability to determine which individual cancer cells are the ‘resilient’ ones, which, if left untreated, will have the most impact on patient survival,” said Dr. Shah, scientist, BC Cancer Agency, and assistant professor, University of British Columbia, Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Computer Science.

The research, vital to future drug studies, proves that treating cancers is akin to shooting at a moving target. Different cell groups within a complex cancer have varying abilities to survive and grow, and this causes the composition of the cancer to change over time and in response to drug therapies. Until now, the evolution of a patient’s cancer has been largely overlooked from a treatment perspective without a way to accurately analyze and measure the changing cell populations.

With the power of genomic sequencing being integrated into patient trials at the BC Cancer Agency, the agency says this major advancement comes at a critical time, providing a model to determine a cancer’s growth trajectory.

“Today, we are light-years ahead in the understanding of cancer, thanks to the work of Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shah and their research colleagues, who have the support of BC Cancer Foundation donors in their ability to influence the next wave of targeted cancer care,” said Douglas Nelson, president & CEO, BC Cancer Foundation.