“Google Maps” for the Cancer Cell – Dr. Vizeacoumar

The Vizeacoumar lab aims to build the “Google Maps” of the cancer cells. The cells that make up the human body are just like those new places one might visit while on that global adventure. Imagine taking a major road trip without Google Maps. It’s not impossible but it wouldn’t be as easy, especially for those who have never read a map before. That is, like those places you’ve never been and don’t know how to get around, cells also have complicated transportation systems, full of highly regulated traffic systems. Scientists call these transportation systems “biological pathways”. And just like the traffic control systems, these biological pathways within the cells also have stop signs, U-turns, one-way streets, and are highly controlled. When a signal light goes down on these pathways it affects the rest of the system, creating traffic jams and delays. It’s that interruption on the streets of the genome that leads to cancer. Now, imagine if we had a “Google Maps” for a cancer cell! With it, researchers would be able to find which traffic signal within the cancer cells went down and design drugs that can specifically fix some of those broken signals in the cancer cell.

For Dr. Franco Vizeacoumar, a Research Scientist with the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, mapping the biological pathways of the cancer cell is the first step in developing novel therapeutic strategies to treat cancer. With the support of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, matching funds from the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, and the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, his group has established the Phenogenomic Imaging Centre of Saskatchewan that aims to build genetic networks of cancer cells. Recently, with the support of the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the lab is pushing the limits with cutting edge, genome-editing CRISPR technology in Saskatchewan.

“To build our map, we undertake unbiased systematic large-scale studies where we query the entire genome,” said Dr. Vizeacoumar. “We do not have any favourite genes or pathways. We are looking at the whole system and ask what are the vulnerabilities we should target to collapse the entire cancer signalling networks”.

Within his lab are bright minds like Chelsea Cunningham, a senior PhD student funded through the Lisa Rendall Fellowship. Chelsea received the two-year fellowship in September 2015, and her term was renewed for a further two years. Her work aims at identifying and fixing those traffic signals within cancer cells.

She says, “The Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and Lisa Rendall Fellowship have been incredible for allowing me to follow this project I began as an undergrad in the Vizeacoumar lab, and make meaningful contributions to the cancer research field. Without funding, I simply would not have been able to continue my research.”

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