Genetic Pathology Evaluation Centre

Award Type: 


  • David Huntsman, MD, FRCPC, FCCMG
    University of British Columbia/BC Cancer Agency


Researchers at the centre are using tissue microarray technology to systematically validate whether certain biomarkers – cellular or molecular substances found in cancers – can be used to improve cancer diagnostics or predict the course of disease. With the ability to test hundreds of tumour samples at a time, researchers can assess the potential value of potential biomarkers with an efficiency that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Biomarkers are cellular or molecular substances normally present in small amounts in the blood, other body fluids or tissues. Since tumours will usually produce specific proteins, an increase in the level of certain proteins in body fluids or tissues may indicate (i.e. be a biomarker for) the presence of certain cancer types. However, there are limitations to the use of such markers. For example, a biomarker test with normal results does not prove you are cancer free, nor does an elevated test prove you have cancer.

The Genetic Pathology Evaluation Centre (GPEC) is a shared initiative between the University of BC, the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and the BC Cancer Agency. GPEC will use its MSFHR funding to accelerate the study of biomarkers for diagnosing and predicting cancer. Ultimately, this should translate into better care and improved outcomes for cancer patients.

BC is well positioned to play a leading role in validating the use of cancer biomarkers, with access to large archives of cancer tissue samples at Vancouver General and other BC hospitals, province-wide standardized protocols for cancer care, and detailed patient records at the BC Cancer Agency.

The recent development of tissue microarray (TMA technology makes it technically and financially feasible to assess the clinical relevance of cancer biomarkers. Hundreds of tissue samples are arrayed in rows and columns on a glass slide, and can be assessed for a single marker in one experiment.

Researchers at GPEC are using this technology to validate markers as a method of identifying and contributing to earlier, more precise treatment regimens for several cancers, including breast, ovarian, endometrial, cervical, vulvar and sarcoma (cancer of connective tissue, bone or cartilage). For example, multiple subsets of breast cancer with significantly different outcomes have already been differentiated using tissue microarrays.

With many hundreds of tumours represented in a single tissue microarray (TMA), an enormous amount of data is generated. The use of a sophisticated bioinformatics system that employs advanced computing technologies for data management and analysis allows the research group to rapidly retrieve TMA data from a library of images created by an automated digital scanning microscope. GPEC is also the only laboratory in Canada capable of displaying all TMA data on the Internet.

Award term completed September 2009.

Health Category: 
Host Institution: 
Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute
Research Location: 
Vancouver General Hospital