Researchers at York University’s Centre for Research in Mass Spectrometry (CRMS), Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network have identified protein biomarkers that may aid in the diagnosis and prognosis of endometrial cancer, which affects the lining of the uterus. The researchers hope that a partnership with the private sector will expedite clinical testing and eventually move their discovery from the research bench to patients’ bedsides.
Endometrial cancer is the most common form of cancer in the female reproductive tract. In 2009, 4,400 Canadian women were diagnosed with endometrial cancer, making it the fourth-most-common cancer among Canadian women after breast, lung and colorectal cancers.
Although 85 per cent of diagnosed women show a five-year survival rate from endometrial cancer, and the overall survival rate is 79 per cent, those numbers have remained static for the last 20 years. Currently, endometrial cancer is often detected when unusual uterine blood discharges prompt a diagnostic investigation. These discharges can sometimes be the first signal that cancer is present, yet they may appear after the cancer has already progressed to a more advanced stage. Hysterectomies, with or without lymph node dissections, are currently the primary treatment; patients may also receive adjuvant therapy (radiation or chemotherapy), depending on the disease’s type, stage and grade.
Enter protein biomarkers – biological substances associated with a particular disease that can ideally be detected in the blood to aid the disease’s diagnosis and/or prognosis.
“We have identified several proteins that are present in much higher concentrations in endometrial cancer cells compared to normal cells,” says Professor Michael Siu (right), director of the Centre for Research in Mass Spectrometry, York’s associate vice-president research, science & technology, and professor in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. “These differences in protein expression have been verified in the lab on a couple of hundred patient samples; early results for testing in blood are very encouraging. By working with the private sector, we hope to be able to expedite clinical testing of the panel of biomarkers and develop a diagnostic kit for endometrial cancer.”
Siu’s research team includes Dr. Terry Colgan, head of gynecological pathology and cytopathology at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Alex Romaschin, formerly with the University Health Network and now a scientist with the Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital.
Over the last five years, the team has published eight papers on endometrial cancer biomarkers in prestigious international journals and a number of additional articles are in various editorial and reviewing stages. Siu’s team has attracted over $1.3 million in external research funding for this endometrial cancer research, as well as an additional $1.8 million in funding for biomarkers of other cancers.
Siracor, a private-sector company founded by biotechnology entrepreneur Joel Cheng, has licensed the intellectual properties of the endometrial cancer biomarkers. Siracor is 100 per cent Canadian-owned, but has a global view and reach. “Endometrial cancer affects women all over the world,” says Cheng. “By developing kits that will expedite the detection of the disease and at an earlier stage, Siracor hopes to be a part of the scientific solution that will lessen this cancer’s impact worldwide.”
York University’s technology transfer service leads the patenting and licensing of the endometrial cancer biomarkers in collaboration with its counterparts at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network. It’s part of ongoing efforts to make sure research is not kept on the shelf.
“Technology transfer is a specialized service York offers to all researchers whose findings have commercial potential,” says Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation. “Strong basic research discoveries can lead to important applications, as we hope will be the case in this instance by improving endometrial cancer detection and treatment options. Through careful collaboration with industry, York is using initiatives such as this to maximize the benefit of our research findings to patients and their families.”