Scientific advance delves deeper into cancer than ever before

Researchers can now read the genomes of single cells within a tumour

Dr. Samuel Aparicio, BC Cancer distinguished scientist and co-lead author on the study. Photo by BC Cancer Foundation.

Republished with permission from the BC Cancer Foundation

VANCOUVER, B.C. – BC Cancer scientists, in partnership with the University of British Columbia, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) and Microsoft have developed a new method for analyzing cancer tissue, allowing them to learn more about cancer than previously possible. Researchers can now read the genomes of single cells within a tumour, opening up a new wave of understanding of how and why cancer develops and changes over time.

This new method is so sensitive that researchers will now be able to analyze single cells from a tissue, and decode their genomes individually. This is a key element to understanding cell evolution – including how normal, seemingly healthy cells become cancerous and why cancerous cells spread and become resistant to treatment over time. The method will unlock the answers to crucial questions like: the origins of cancer, why cancers evolve, why they become resistant to drugs and why they metastasize. This research will also be a key pathway to cancer prevention, understanding the root environmental causes of the disease.

“The ways in which the cells differ from each other turns out to be important for understanding why they stop responding to treatments,” says Dr. Samuel Aparicio, BC Cancer distinguished scientist and co-lead author on the study with Dr. Sohrab Shah, BC Cancer scientist and current chief of computational oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “It also tells us something about the history of the cancer; how it developed, how long it’s been inside healthy tissue, and how long it’s been growing. In some cases, a pattern of mutation in the genome might tell us that that person has been exposed to a carcinogen or some other thing in the environment which predisposes to that cancer. That’s what the methodology brings – the ability to address all of those questions.”

The new approach brings together leading-edge methods in genomics and computer science from the laboratories of Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shah.

This advance comes nearly a decade after Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shah and their team’s first foundational shift in decoding cancer: the ability to sequence human cancer genomes, which opened up a new era in understanding cancer and has since been transformational in the field.

The team began with two genomes, in a 2009 landmark study of cancer metastasis in a breast cancer and today has decoded more than 500,000 single cell cancer genomes, 50,000 of which are released into the public domain through this study. In the last ten years, cancer genomics findings have sparked new drug treatments, new ways of diagnosing cancer and new ways of monitoring cancer.

“Basic and translational research is essential to advancing medical discoveries that will have a profound impact on patient care,” says Dr. François Bénard, vice president, research, BC Cancer. “We are proud of the work our researchers do and the collaboration between partners including the University of British Columbia and Memorial Sloan Kettering.”

“A new era of breakthrough cancer research and treatment is here, thanks in large part to our donors who have supported Dr. Aparicio and his team at BC Cancer for the past decade, bringing hope and promise to patients in B.C.,” says Sarah Roth, president & CEO, BC Cancer Foundation.

“Sometimes obtaining the knowledge takes a bit of time and persistence, but there’s a message of hope in here,” says Dr. Aparicio. “Over the next ten years, we anticipate this technology will enable a fundamentally improved understanding of cancer biology leading to better ways to target cancers, predict response to therapy and combine interventions to improve the lives of patients.”

“We’re excited to be able to present this technology to other scientists, both at MSK and beyond,” adds Dr. Shah.

Research teams in the United Kingdom and United States have already begun to adopt the methodology developed at BC Cancer in Vancouver.

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