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Tag Archives: lab-on-a-chip

Friday Science Review: October 9, 2009

Breast cancer, genomics and two cover stories in prestigious journals…

Cancer Evolution and Progression:  Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency have sequenced and compared the entire cancer genome of a metastatic tumour versus the primary breast tumour that originated nine years earlier.  They used next generation DNA sequencing technology to reveal 32 mutations in the metastatic cancer but surprisingly only five of these were present in the original tumour.  Six mutations were present at lower frequencies in the primary tumour, 19 were not detected and 2 were undetermined.  These differences may provide clues about how cancer becomes resistant to therapy or how a tumour switches to aggressive metastasis that spreads to other sites in the body.  The study demonstrated that cancers evolve and that there may be significant heterogeneity within the tumours.  These findings emphasize the importance of ongoing research efforts to sequence all cancer genomes and buttress arguments in favour of personalized medicine.

The study was lead by Dr. Samuel Aparicio at the BC Cancer Agency and appears as the cover story in the latest edition of Nature.

Honey, I shrunk the lab: The “lab-on-a-chip” concept has been in use for a number of years but Dr. Aaron Wheeler’s Microfluidics Laboratory at the University of Toronto has designed a new module for use in breast cancer detection and care.  The hand-held sized device can extract and quantify estrogen in a very small sample size – as little as a 1 microliter sample of tissue or blood – by using electrical charges to move liquids around in a precise manner over a microchip.  Current methods require a much larger sample, about the size of a penny, which is often impractical to obtain.  Since elevated estrogen levels are associated with breast cancer risk and pathogenesis, this new device could be used at point-of-care to screen at-risk patients or to monitor therapies and provide results within minutes instead of days.

Dr. Wheeler collaborated with Dr. Robert Casper (University of Toronto and Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute) on this project, which garnered the inaugural cover story in the new journal, Science Translational Medicine.

Genome Map Upgrade: Researchers have generated a comprehensive structural map of the human genome in identifying and marking regions that are duplicated or deleted, the so-called copy number variation (CNV).  Genetic variation is what makes us different and certain areas of the genome reflect these differences whereas other genetic regions show very little variation and are likely essential function genes.  It also provides important clues to understanding evolution and provides the foundation for future research in developing personalized medicine.   The international study was co-lead by Dr. Stephen Scherer at The Centre for Applied Genomics (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto) and provides the following comments:

“The scale of this current project is 100 times the scale of all others.”

“Previous work in this field would be like a paper fold-up map; this advancement is like a GPS that takes you where you need to go. It allows you to navigate the landscape of the genome, from its peaks where there is vast genetic variation, to its valleys devoid of it.”

“Variation is indeed the spice of life and we now know that nature buffers this variation by using CNVs. We are harnessing this knowledge to fight disease.”

Dr. Scherer is also involved in maintaining the Database of Genomic Variants, which provides researchers around the world access to a curated catalog of CNVs.  Details of the research report appear in the advanced on-line edition of Nature.

Congratulations to McGill University alumni Jack Szostak and Willard Boyle for winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in their respective disciplines.

Dr. Jack Szostak started at McGill when he was 15 years old and graduated in 1972, specializing in cell biology.  This was the start of a brilliant research career where he co-discovered how telomeres and telomerase protects chromosomes from losing genetic material during cell division.  He shares the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Dr. Willard Boyle completed his BSc (1947), MSc (1948) and PhD (1950) from McGill.   He shares the Nobel Prize for Physics for the 1969 co-invention of the charged-couple device (CCD) that is used in today’s digital photography technology.

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