World First: Taking new ground in cancer research

15 March 2011

As a clinician and a scientist, Dr. David Huntsman studies specific genes that increase a person’s risk for getting a certain type of cancer — and his contributions to genomics discoveries are changing the clinical cancer-care landscape globally.

In 2002 and 2007, Huntsman received funding through MSFHR’s Career Investigator Program — without which he says he would not be doing health research in BC.

“MSFHR provided me with career salary support that enabled me to reduce my clinical load and thus the opportunity to wholeheartedly engage in cancer genetic and ovarian cancer research,” he says.”This would have been impossible without their support.”

The resulting research is providing clinicians with new tools in the fight against cancer. Huntsman and his team have worked with families from around the world to identify mutations responsible for stomach cancer risk and have developed strategies to help them deal with this inherited cancer predisposition. In addition, with colleagues Drs. Blake Gilks and Torsten Nielsen, also MSFHR Scholars, they created the Genetic Pathology Evaluation Centre, a laboratory that has not only changed the way tissue based biomarker research is conducted in Canada, but also the way in which several cancers are now diagnosed and treated.

Then there are the landmark discoveries made through BC’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program (OvCaRe), of which Huntsman is co-founder and director. “There are several world firsts and things have gone very well,” says Huntsman. Among them is the identification of subtypes as clinically distinct diseases in ovarian cancer. “This is important because we realized this was one of the reasons little progress was being made clinically,” he explains.

Building on this success, Huntsman’s team sought unique features for each subtype that could be used as biomarkers for early diagnostics and targets for treatment.

“There were a couple of cancers that were little understood, one being granulosa-cell tumours of the ovary; the other, clear cell carcinoma of the ovary,” he says. “We collaborated with the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre to identify the most important mutations in those cancers.”

The first study, published in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), showed that almost every granulosa-cell tumour in the ovary has the same genetic mutation. “This was the first clinically usable discovery to be made using new sequencing technologies and we now use it as a diagnostic,” says Huntsman. Work is underway to develop this mutation into a therapeutic target.

The second discovery, published in 2010 in NEJM, was in clear cell carcinoma. “We discovered what looks like a major cancer gene that will have relevance not only in ovarian cancer but also in cancers of the uterus. This gene may help explain why endometriosis sometimes turns into cancer.”

Huntsman’s research on granulosa-cell tumours of the ovary is one of many noteworthy achievements of MSFHR Career Investigators identified in a report that analyses MSFHR’s Career Investigator Program and its contribution to building BC’s health research capacity.

“Most of the really exciting things that are going on in health research in BC are either directly or indirectly attributable to the MSFHR,” says Huntsman. “This was a fantastic investment by the BC government.”