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 that were 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 caliber 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.

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 Genome 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.”
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