Translating gene expression into clinical care for sarcomas and breast cancer

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. As a pathologist, Dr. Torsten Nielsen’s job is to accurately diagnose cancer and determine its type from more than 200 possibilities. For more than 50 years, these diagnoses have been made using a light microscope to examine tissue biopsies. However, this can be subjective, requiring the pathologist to make a judgment call in certain cases. Recent new technologies help determine the genetic profile of each type of cancer. This profile can be used to distinguish between cancers that otherwise appear almost identical under the microscope. The ability to detect subtle differences among cancers can be enormously important because the exact diagnosis determines what combination of surgery, radiation, hormone treatment or chemotherapy is the best treatment plan.

Using advanced genetic tools, Dr. Nielsen aims to develop clinical tests that more accurately identify difficult subtypes of cancer, and to then determine which treatments will work best for each subtype. Previously supported by an MSFHR Scholar award, he works with two cancer types in particular: breast cancer and sarcomas (tumours of muscle and bone). With breast cancer, he is working to develop inexpensive and easy-to-conduct clinical tests that accurately diagnose four types not easily distinguished under the microscope. With sarcomas, he is using new molecular tools to develop diagnostic tests and treatments that target specific molecular changes, to see if new drugs can cure these cancers with minimal side effects. His research could lead to simple, effective, and widely available diagnostic tools and personalized treatment strategies that will improve survival for cancer patients.