Cross-country tag team tackles breast cancer

Researchers hope collaboration will help solve complex puzzle

by Hilary Thomson staff writer

Two UBC investigators have joined a trans-Canada research relay of more than 20 researchers which will receive $3 million over three years to develop new knowledge to combat breast cancer.

Joanne Emerman, associate dean, Research, in the Faculty of Medicine and Anatomy Asst. Prof. Calvin Roskelley are part of a team studying a family of hormones called insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) which have been implicated in causing the disease.

It is one of two projects in the new Streams of Excellence Program organized by the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Initiative (CBCRI).

In a structured approach similar to a sports relay team, basic researchers from different disciplines will collaborate on investigations and pass their findings to translational researchers who will develop clinical therapies for patient trials.

"It's time for researchers to increase their collaborations," says Emerman. "We have worked so long in isolation but now realize we can't ignore the multitude of determinants that factor into breast cancer."

"Our part in the project is to isolate the different cell types in the breast and determine which are involved in responding to or making IGFs," says Emerman.

"Once we've done that, we can concentrate our attention on those cells only. We suspect the stem cells--the ones that create all other cell types--may be the ones responding to IGFs which then influence the transformation of normal stem cells to malignant ones."

Roskelley, a cell biologist, will investigate how signals from outside the cell get transmitted into the nucleus to change its characteristics.

"This is a landmark multidisciplinary project," says Roskelley, who has been a faculty member since 1995. "It's an exciting opportunity for us to take basic research findings from the lab bench to the bedside."

Emerman credits UBC professor of Medical Genetics and leukemia researcher Connie Eaves for providing expertise on stem cells that helped develop the assays to study breast stem cells.

To study the effects of IGFs, Emerman and Roskelley will look at about 300 samples of breast tissue. That's where Emerman's primary culture system comes in.

Since 1980, Emerman has developed a culture system--now used worldwide--for studying cells from breast tissue obtained from surgery.

The system uses donated tissue removed during biopsies, mastectomies and breast reduction surgeries, thanks to the co-operation of three Vancouver hospitals: St. Vincent's, Mount St. Joseph's and the UBC site of Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre. Emerman will provide cells to other researchers who are part of the relay team.

Information from the study could assist with early diagnosis and prognosis and improve therapeutic methods.

The second project in the relay aims to discover new molecular targets for development of therapies for breast cancer.

Breast cancer is currently the leading cause of death among women between the ages of 35 and 55.

CBCRI is the primary funder of breast cancer research in Canada. It has granted $61.5 million to 210 breast cancer research projects.