Positive Findings

A new discovery in breast cancer research is a testament to the power of teamwork. And also to the growing importance of bio banks.

Many people are familiar with the notion that breast cancer is often associated with hormones and can be classed as receptive or sensitive to estrogen, progesterone and ERBB2. Hormone suppression is a common treatment for these cancers.

But there is another group of breast cancers, called triple-negative because the tumours associated with them have no receptors for estrogen, progesterone or ERBB2. Familiar drugs, such as Tamoxifen, for example, have no effect on these often aggressive tumours. Triple-negative cancer accounts for more than 15 per cent of breast cancers and 25 per cent of breast cancer deaths in Canada. But this, scientists already knew.

This spring, a group of research teams lead by Dr. Samuel Aparicio at the University of British Columbia/B.C. Cancer Agency (other participants were from Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute and Cancer Research UK/University of Cambridge) published findings of a study about triple-negative breast cancer in the online edition of the journal Nature.

Researchers in the study sequenced DNA isolated from more than 100 tumours to identify common and unique genome-level signatures. Their results show that, in terms of subtypes, the breast cancer family is bigger than anyone expected. “The message was very clear,” says Dr. Sambasivarao Damaraju, PhD, Director of Alberta Cancer Research Biorepository/CBCF Tumour Bank, which provided many of the tissue samples for study. “Not all tumours – even among triple-negative breast cancers – are alike, meaning that novel drugs are needed to target these various subtypes. This research paves the way for developing new drugs and treatments.” Damaraju worked closely with Dr. John Mackey from the Cross Cancer Institute, who lead one of the research teams in the study.

The study was ambitious and wide-ranging. And it would not have been possible without tissues collected from willing patients and banked by the Alberta Cancer Research Biorepository/CBCF Tumour Bank. “These specimens are priceless, given the long years of follow-up post diagnosis,” Damaraju says. “Treatment information and outcomes for the patients treated with standard therapies are key to driving research projects of this nature.”

The tumour bank that Damaraju oversees is growing in recognition and its contributions to research productivity continue to multiply. Funding agencies for the tumour bank include the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Damaraju describes the potential knowledge gain from tumours banked more than 10 years ago as invaluable. “The dividends we can accrue,” he says, “are just starting.”

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