February 5, 2020
The Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Project has shown that despite cancer’s complexities, researchers are close to cataloguing all of the biological mechanisms that lead to the disease.
Today, Nature released a special collection of 23 publications related to the analysis, one of which presents the most comprehensive catalogue of RNA alterations in cancer to date.
We sat down with Dr. Philip Awadalla, OICR investigator and National Scientific Director of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, and Dr. Fabien Lamaze, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Awadalla Lab, to discuss.
What can RNA show us about cancer?
PA: Cancer is thought to be a disease of the genome, where changes – or mutations – in an individual’s DNA accumulate and eventually lead to the development of the disease. Often, we can identify the mutations that drive this development, figure out the related mechanisms and design new therapies with that information, but sometimes no such ‘driver mutation’ exists.
We believe that RNA can help us unravel the story behind these cancers that we can’t yet explain.
What did the study find?
FL: In this study, we took a deep dive into the transcriptome – the RNA – of nearly two thousand tumour samples donated by patients from around the world, representing 27 different types of tumours. The group found more than 1.5 million different RNA alterations and related mechanisms in these samples, exposing the true complexity of the disease.
Interestingly, the study found key RNA alterations in patient samples with no DNA driver mutation. This suggests that some of the cellular changes that lead to cancer may manifest in RNA rather than DNA mutations.
What does this mean for the future of cancer research?
PA: We see that cancer is complex and we need even more data to fully understand it, but we’ve also shown that we can make this happen by working together.
FL: The Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Project was the product of an enormous international study that was only made possible by the dedication and true collaboration between thousands of researchers from around the world. For this study, in particular, I’d like to recognize the scientific leadership of Dr. Angela Brooks and collaborators from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
PA: As more patient samples are collected and sequenced, we look forward to using the software tools and infrastructure from the Pan-Cancer Project to gain further insights into cancer biology.
How can this help cancer patients?
FL: Understanding the changes that lead to cancer can help us design better tests and new treatments for future cancer patients. This study, for example, discovered six interesting gene fusions involved with cancer, where two genes come together, join in an abnormal way and wreak havoc. In the future, we could potentially develop new drugs that target the downstream products of these fusions and stop them from causing further damage in the cell.
PA: With the knowledge we’ve gained in this study, we look forward to furthering diagnostic and therapeutic research and development so we can ultimately treat patients more successfully. Work is already underway to make this happen.
- Unprecedented exploration generates most comprehensive map of cancer genomes charted to date
- New clues to cancer in the genome’s other 99 per cent
- AI algorithm classifies cancer types better than experts
- Whole-genome analysis generates new insights into viruses involved in cancer
- Dr. Lincoln Stein talks about the Pan-Cancer Project
- Finding the roots of cancer, ‘It’s a needle in a haystack’
- Unraveling the story behind the cancers we can’t explain
- TrackSig: Unlocking the history of cancer
- Discovering cancer’s vulnerabilities: The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts
- New tumour-driving mutations discovered in the under-explored regions of the cancer genome
July 23, 2019
Biostatistics Training Initiative (BTI) alumnus brings on new BTI trainee to study Canada’s largest population health dataset using today’s top technologies
Recently, circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) – DNA released from cancer cells that freely circulates in the blood – has garnered much attention not only as an alternative to traditional tissue biopsies, but as a potential blood-based biomarker for early cancer diagnosis.
The ability to detect the earliest blood-borne traces of cancer largely rests in our ability to determine which molecular markers indicate that a cancer is developing – or which patterns in ctDNA can predict whether a cancer will grow. Dr. David Soave sees this as a mathematical challenge that, if solved, could have huge impact for better predicting and diagnosing a wide variety of cancers.
“To find cancer earlier or predict who will develop the disease, we need to carefully compare human samples from those who will develop cancer and samples from those who won’t,” Soave, an Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and OICR Associate, says. “This type of challenge requires new statistical models, methods and computational techniques that can decipher large, complex and high-dimensional data.”
Last year, the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP) unified the data from several provincial longitudinal health studies into a national cohort consisting of more than 325,000 participants who are voluntarily donating their health and biologic samples to research. As some CPTP participants will develop disease and others will not, this dataset provides an unprecedented resource for researchers like Soave to discover the earliest traces of cancer that appear several months to years prior to an initial diagnosis.Continue reading – Blood samples, biostatistics and a fresh perspective: The makings of a cancer prediction machine
August 7, 2018
Big data are ushering in a new era of individualized cancer care and prevention, but not without conceptual and practical challenges. Canadian advances in genomics will be made by or limited by bioinformatics analytical capacity as well as the ability to store and analyze data in new and more sophisticated ways.
To help realize the potential of genomics research in cancer, the Canadian Data Integration Centre (CDIC) platform, led by OICR, offers third generation bioinformatics and genomics tools to support both functional and clinical genomics research. CDIC is the largest academic cancer informatics program in the country – offering customizable, client-oriented access services for data challenges across diverse research areas.
July 10, 2018
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) progresses quickly and requires treatment soon after diagnosis, but the disease begins long before becoming symptomatic. Early indicators of AML were thought to be indistinguishable from healthy aging. But now, an international group of researchers led in part by Dr. Sagi Abelson, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. John Dick at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, has discovered distinctive traces of AML in patients up to 10 years before they were diagnosed with the disease.
June 19, 2018
Over the past 10 years, more than 300,000 Canadians have volunteered to be part of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP), a research platform that tracks the development of cancers and chronic diseases in the population over several decades to better understand risk factors.
Researchers from across Canada and the University of Toronto published a manuscript in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last week, marking a culmination of effort from hundreds of Canadian researchers to build the project with support from multiple national and provincial funders.
March 29, 2018
Q and A with Dr. Philip Awadalla, Scientific Director of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project
Since 2008, the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP) has collected health data and biological samples from more than 300,000 volunteer participants across Canada. Now that its primary data collection phase has concluded, the Project is sharing this data with qualified researchers to help uncover the factors behind cancer and other diseases. It was recently announced that OICR’s Dr. Philip Awadalla will serve as the Project’s National Scientific Director and that OICR will host the Project’s national database and other scientific activities. We sat down with Awadalla to learn more about his vision for CPTP’s future. Continue reading – Q and A with Dr. Philip Awadalla, Scientific Director of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project
March 29, 2018
Canada’s largest health research platform teams up with University of Toronto to accelerate cancer and chronic disease research
Pictured (left to right): Dr. John Mc Laughlin, Executive Director of CPTP; Cindy Morton, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.; and Dr. Philip Awadalla, National Scientific Director of CPTP.
Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP) enters a new era of scientific activity under the leadership of newly appointed National Scientific Director, Dr. Philip Awadalla
March 29, 2018 (Toronto) – The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (“the Partnership”) today announced The University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health will be the new national scientific partner of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP) – Canada’s national population cohort for precision health. This new scientific partner will enable a strong national scientific vision for CPTP and support leading-edge research on the possible causes of cancer and chronic diseases, leading to more made-in-Canada discoveries and breakthroughs. In addition, the University has announced that Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) will be its strategic partner to deliver the expertise and services needed to lead this key research platform.
March 6, 2018
Study shows that environmental exposures such as air pollution are more determinant of respiratory health than inherited genetics
Toronto (March 6, 2018) – Researchers have found strong evidence that environmental exposures, including air pollution, affect gene expressions associated with respiratory diseases much more than genetic ancestry. The study, published today in Nature Communications, analyzed more than 1.6 million data points from biological specimens, health questionnaires and environmental datasets, making this study one of the largest ever to examine the relationship between gene expression and environmental stimuli. These findings represent a groundbreaking use of big data to uncover the environmental factors that are behind diseases and inform strategies for prevention, an approach that would apply to a number of diseases, including cancer.
January 25, 2018
The Canadian Data Integration Centre receives new funding to help cancer researchers translate findings to patients
Toronto (January 25, 2018) – The Canadian Data Integration Centre (CDIC) has received $6.4 million in funding from Genome Canada to help the research community translate the biological insights gained from genomics research into tangible improvements for cancer patients.
CDIC is a “one-stop shop” service delivery platform for cancer researchers, helping streamline research by providing coordinated expertise on a broad range of services, including data integration, genomics, pathology, biospecimen handling and advanced sequencing technologies. It is an international leader in genomics, bioinformatics and translational research, supporting some of the world’s largest programs in genomic data analysis, genomic and clinical data hosting, cancer data analyses and access, and the development of algorithms for advanced sequencing technology.
May 3, 2017
The advent of genomic sequencing and targeted therapies has opened the door to new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer. The Ontario-wide Cancer Targeted Nucleic Acid Evaluation (OCTANE) program is a new, province-wide initiative supported by OICR that will allow more patients to benefit from these innovations while also helping to advance cancer research in Ontario.
January 17, 2017
For scientists working to understand diseases and develop new treatments, access to data is key. Ontario Health Study (OHS) participants have already provided the Study with a wealth of information about their health and lifestyle through the OHS online survey, and in some cases, blood samples and physical measures. Researchers can use this information to uncover the causes of various chronic diseases and to inform further research. Now, OHS participants are being given an opportunity to further help researchers by completing a follow-up questionnaire.
May 13, 2016
OICR researcher receives $2 million in federal funding to study metabolic conditions that can lead to cancer
Dr. Philip Awadalla and the Ontario Health Study team.
Chronic health conditions place a heavy burden on patients and their families, and cost the healthcare system and the Canadian economy staggering amounts. Chronic diseases were behind 67 per cent of total direct costs in health care and 60 per cent of total indirect costs as a result of early death, loss of productivity and foregone income, according to a 2006 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Globally, non-communicable disease (NCD) was made a priority by the World Health Organization, leading to the formation of the NCD Alliance and the Sharjah Declaration, which aims to reduce the global burden of NCDs.