Identification of causal genetic alterations involved in the progression of epithelial cancers

Of the 227,000 newly diagnosed cancer cases in Canada in 2007, approximately 80 per cent were some type of carcinoma. Carcinomas (epithelial cancers) include a vast array of common cancers such as lung, breast, prostate, colorectal, oral, esophageal and cervical cancers. Patients with early stage cancer show the best response to therapies and exhibit the greater survival rate compared to those with the advanced stage disease. However, with current screening techniques, the majority of patients present with advanced stage disease at the time of diagnosis, limiting treatment options. The disruption of genes is responsible for cancer development. However, the accumulation of gene disruptions during cancer progression makes it difficult to distinguish which disruptions are the initiating events in this process. The discovery of these initiating events are crucial for gaining a better biological understanding of how cancer progresses. Conventional methods can only detect large DNA disruptions that may contain many genes, hindering precise identification of the genes responsible for cancer development. MSFHR funded William Lockwood for his early PhD research. He’s now continuing his comparison of DNA profiles of normal cells against cancerous cells. By labelling normal and tumour DNA with different dyes, he will be able to investigate the genetic changes that occur in progressing stages of cancer, in order to retrace the evolving patterns of gene disruption during cancer development. By distinguishing the initiating events, Lockwood’s research will shed light on the pathways driving the progression of cancer cells. This could lead to the identification of biomarkers to predict which early stage cancers are prone to develop into advanced tumours.