I promised to tell you about some of the projects we’re working on at the moment and how they fit into our overall goal of getting the best possible breast cancer treatments to the right patients at the right time.

We have so many different projects on the go.  It’s impossible to cover everything, but I hope I can explain the big picture of how all the different components connect to each other and to our overarching goal.

There are many steps involved in developing a new drug and deciding which patients will benefit the most from it. The very first is to identify what we call “druggable targets” – genes that play an active role in the development or progression of a cancer and that can be blocked by giving the patient a drug that specifically targets that gene.  (As an example, the drug Herceptin targets the HER2 gene.)

In the past, identifying these targets was a very laborious and slow process.  But thankfully, things have changed.  New technologies now let us undertake large-scale target discovery projects much more quickly.

Our efforts to sequence the entire genomes of hundreds of breast cancers are a great example. Every individual tumour will contain many different gene mutations, but not all of these mutations actually contribute to the development or progression of the tumour.  This means that when you sequence any given tumour, it’s not immediately obvious which mutations are important.

If we sequence large numbers of tumours, then we start to see patterns (such as a particular gene being mutated in more than one patient) that will lead us to the targets. This kind of analysis has only become possible in the last year or so because of recent advances in the technology of DNA sequencing.  We are making the most of this new opportunity!

If we’re really interested in a gene, we’ll use many different methods of analysis and collaborate with other researchers locally, nationally or internationally whose expertise complements our own.  For example, some of our projects intersect nicely with the functional cancer imaging research being done by Dr. François Bénard’s group in the lab next door (François wrote a blog post about his research last month). 

So, while all the people in my lab are working on completely separate activities – computational biologists searching genomes for new targets of interest, biochemists studying how a mutated gene works in cultured cells, pathologists screening tumours for a different mutation, and geneticists studying living organisms –we all pull together towards a single long-term goal!

Sam

Senior Scientist, BC Cancer Agency Research Centre