Third cancer breakthrough in B.C.

Another world-first discovery at the BC Cancer Agency, just published in the prestigious international journal Nature, has dramatically boosted our understanding of how cancer develops and how it can be treated more effectively.

The world-renowned researchers in the Agency’s prolific Centre for Lymphoid Cancer have announced a third breakthrough in just over a year. They have discovered the single cancer gene responsible for 40 per cent of primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma (a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma) and 15 per cent of all Hodgkin lymphoma cases.

Their study shows how cancer can evade the patient’s immune system and cause the body’s white cells to lose their ability to detect cancer cells.

This same cancer gene also causes the destruction of the protective white cells – a “double whammy” that leads to the growth of cancer among this sizable percentage of patients.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Christian Steidl, says, “It’s always been puzzling how cancer cells are able to evade the immune system and continue to grow. This study gives us unique insight into how they rearrange their chromosomes to do so.”

“We’ve long suspected that a defect in the immune system is somehow implicated in the development of cancer, particularly lymphoid cancers, but research so far has yielded few clues,” adds senior author and principal investigator Dr. Randy Gascoyne, Research Director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Centre for Lymphoid Cancer.  “This is the first time we’ve been able to identify a concrete genetic mechanism for how that happens in these lymphomas.”

The good news is that their discovery could lead directly to new treatments for this group of cancers. The incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma has risen steadily over the last 50 years in North America. This work identifies a new “biomarker” that will accurately identify these lymphomas and can be used to engineer new drugs that specifically target this gene.

As in the team’s previous two discoveries, this breakthrough was made possible through the technology provided by the Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre – next-generation sequencing instruments that can decode billions of bases from the DNA of cancer cells at unprecedented speed and enable rapid interpretation of data.

The work of the Centre for Lymphoid Cancer is also supported by the Agency’s funding partner, the BC Cancer Foundation, which raised $2.6 million for the Centre’s new ANGELYC Project, an ambitious undertaking to sequence and analyze the entire DNA of all lymphoid cancers.

The bottom line is that the research taking place at the BC Cancer Agency, supported by the generosity of B.C. donors, is clearly working. It is only research that can generate new evidence, which in turn is the source of better patient treatments and outcomes.