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Source: Victoria University in the University of

UVic Plays $4-Million Role in Breast Cancer Study

November 8, 2006

A University of Victoria research team is receiving $4 million over the next five years to develop a new technology for the identification of molecules critical to the early detection of breast cancer.

The university is a partner in one of five teams across North America recently awarded funding by the US National Cancer Institute to assess leading-edge proteomics technologies relevant to clinical cancer research and practice. The team received $11.4 million in total.

UVic is the only Canadian university involved. The other co-investigators are at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University in Boston, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and the Plasma Proteome Institute in Washington, DC.

"To be working with researchers from these world-class institutions speaks volumes about the calibre of our proteomics expertise," says UVic biochemist Dr. Terry Pearson. He’s administering the UVic portion of the grant, to be shared between his lab and the UVic–Genome BC Proteomics Centre, headed by UVic biochemist Dr. Christoph Borchers.

Proteomics is the study of the structure and function of proteins, including the way they work and interact with each other inside cells. Technologies such as mass spectrometry are used to detect infinitesimal amounts of proteins in samples of blood or other biological substances.

The team will detect and measure each of 225 blood proteins with a suspected link to breast cancer—known as biomarkers—and use newly developed proteomics techniques to confirm or reject its association with the disease.

"A lot of people over the years have worked on biomarkers for breast cancer, but so far, very few of them work well as diagnostic indicators," says Pearson. Validation of suspect biomarkers will help indicate where future diagnostic efforts should be concentrated.

Of the thousands of different proteins in our blood, some are abundant, others are very rare. "In many cases, we’re trying to find extremely low-abundance proteins coming from a cancer cell," says Pearson. "The technology we use must be able to detect those molecules and identify them with ultrasensitive mass spectrometers."

The project will use an experimental proteomics technique patented by the Plasma Proteome Institute and developed in collaboration with UVic over the last three years. It uses antibodies to "capture" fragments of the target protein from blood plasma, and mass spectrometry to confirm their identity and measure their concentrations.

Pearson is an internationally recognized expert on the use of antibodies and mass spectrometry for protein detection. Borchers is one of the world’s leading protein chemists and a pioneer in the use of mass spectrometry.

The UVic-Genomics BC Proteomics Centre, located at the Vancouver Island Technology Park, is the longest-running protein service and research facility in Canada. It houses seven mass spectrometers—instruments so sensitive they can identify hundreds of molecules from a single human fingerprint and so specific they can distinguish between two molecules that differ by a single atom.

"We’ve already shown that our technology and equipment are sensitive and specific enough to detect breast cancer proteins from a single cell or as little as one-twenty-fifth of a biopsy sample," says Borchers. "This grant will make our centre one of the world’s leading laboratories in the development of clinical diagnoses for early disease detection."

This project is looking at breast cancer proteins, but the same technology has potential for other cancers, infectious diseases and even organ failures, says Pearson. "It’s too early to tell when this work will translate into new diagnostic tests, but it’s an exciting start and the most significant new approach to disease diagnosis in decades."


Media Contacts: Dr. Terry Pearson (Biochemistry & Microbiology) at 250-721-7080 or Valerie Shore (UVic Communications) at 250-721-7641 or



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