Just as early warning systems are instrumental in helping to prevent the loss of life from natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes, early detection is also crucial for significantly increasing the odds of beating cancer, the leading cause of death in Canada.
While, ever year, routine mammography, colonoscopy and PSA tests help save millions of lives by identifying individuals who have pre-symptomatic breast, colon and prostate cancers respectively, no such test is available to detect the early presence of ovarian cancer. And millions of woman around the world are paying the price; over 50% of women diagnosed today with ovarian cancer will die from the disease.
"And that is just an unacceptable situation," states Dr. Lynne Postovit, a leading cancer researcher and associate professor in the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta. "We urgently need to find a way to give these cancer patients a better prognosis."
Dr. Postovit, a recipient of Canada’s Young Researcher Award, made headlines in 2012 when she and her team at Western University found that aggressive breast tumour cells secrete a stem cell protein called Nodal that is associated with more blood vessels in the invasive tumors. By targeting this embryonic protein, they demonstrated that they could cause the blood vessels in the cancerous tumors to collapse, leading to decreased oxygen levels and tumor cell death.
News of Dr. Postovit's groundbreaking work naturally spread quickly and she soon after accepted a highly attractive multi-chair appointment at the University for Alberta. Having brought together key players in biochemistry, pathology and surgery, Dr. Postovit knew she had a strong team that was ready to not only improve the prognosis of breast cancer, but to also take on the challenging goal of improving the survival statistics surrounding ovarian cancer.
"Understanding and identifying ovarian cancer much earlier is a crucial first step to beating this disease,” says Dr. Postovit, whose reputation continues to grow after being named as the Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions Translational Health Chair in Cancer in 2014. “Like detecting any cancer at a late stage, the prognosis declines sharply," she explains. "Our challenge is therefore to find a way to catch the disease at Stage 1 where it is localized, and much easier to remove."
A key question in this pursuit is how cancer cells are able to metastasize, or spread through the human body and evade therapies like radiation and chemotherapy. Dr. Postovit believes that the way forward is to look at cellular plasticity.
Almost like a stem cell feature, plasticity refers to a cell's ability to adapt to its surroundings, like a chameleon.
"In the case of cancer, we have a situation where the cancers cells are co-opting stem cell-like features so that they can change in response to their environment, and live in different places like the lungs, breed, and evade therapy," explains Dr. Postovit. "If we can target the stem cell affiliated phenotypes in these cancer cells, we could prevent that chameleon-like adaptation and resulting resistance to therapy."
By seeing a cancer cell’s environment as more important than the cancer cell itself, Dr. Postovit and her team are looking at ovarian cancer through a unique lens. Her approach is multifaceted and includes measuring stem cell promoting agents as cancer biomarkers, while also targeting them in order to prevent disease progression and recurrence.
“Advanced cancers are like moving targets," explains Dr. Postovit. "We’re saying if we go in and destroy their home, we’ll start to unravel the whole tumour before it spreads.”
Dr. Postovit strongly believes in the power of collaboration to make research advances that will lead to improved care and treatment for women battling other cancers, including breast cancer.
"In my role at the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta, I hope to bring together brilliant minds from varied disciplines with the shared goal of improving cancer outcomes," she says. "Advancements in cancer will come from groups that think outside the box, and can link to the patient population. The next few years will be an exciting time of team building and innovating, in order to facilitate advancement."