Extracellular vesicle associated glycans as a novel platform for breast cancer detection

Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst women in Canada. Breast cancer cells shed tiny pieces of themselves into the blood stream called extracellular vesicles. These tiny pieces, or cell fragments, are different from those of a healthy breast cell and we think they could be used to detect a breast cancer at its earliest stage. Importantly, we can isolate and study these fragments from the blood of healthy females and breast cancer patients. We think that by looking at the sugars and proteins they contain we will find markers that could help in the detection of breast cancer. We are also going to look at tumor cell fragments from patients whose cancer came back years after treatment, a process known as metastasis, and find unique markers that could predict this outcome. By identifying breast cancer early and figuring out whose at risk for a having their cancer come back we can improve how women are treated and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.

MSFHR is providing match funding to the glycomics-based early cancer detection project which is funded by the Canadian Glycomics Network through a GlycoNet Collaborative Team Grant. This Pan-Canadian project involves research teams in British Columbia and Alberta. Dr. Williams, lead PI, is an assistant professor at UBC’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and her team includes clinical pathologist Dr. Peter Watson (BC Cancer) and Professor of Chemistry Dr. Lara Mahal (University of Alberta).

End of award update: November 2021

Following the end of her award term, Dr. Williams has provided the following brief update on this project’s progress.

Most exciting outputs:
Our project successfully isolated small cell fragments, termed extracellular vesicles, from blood plasma of hundreds of breast cancer patients and healthy females. From this, we were able to look at the sugars and proteins on these fragments to identify ones unique to breast cancer patients. This has allowed us to find a couple unique markers that we think can be used to identify breast cancer at its earliest stage of development.

Impact so far:
Detecting cancer at the earliest stage will support the best outcome for patients. This is particularly relevant in breast cancer as it is well established that a disease diagnosis at an early stage, Stage I, is associated with the highest rates of patient survival. Our project has identified novel sugar and protein based biomarkers with utility in identifying breast cancer. Validation of newly identified biomarkers could lead to the development of a blood-based test for breast cancer screening.

Potential future influence:
Our project aims to reduce the mortality associated with a breast cancer diagnosis. To do this we are aiming to develop a non-invasive test that will support the detection of breast cancer at its earliest stage.

Next steps:
We plan to validate our newly discovered breast cancer biomarkers and work towards translating our results into a product that could be used as a simple point-of-care test by a family doctor.

Please visit GlycoNet to learn more about this project.