ARCHIVED - Taking a PATH toward beating cancer

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January 06, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

Every year, more than 13,000 people in Atlantic Canada are diagnosed with cancer, and 6,300 people die — the highest rates in Canada. For researchers, finding ways to reduce those numbers poses many questions. For example, who is most at risk? What role do genetics, the environment, lifestyle and behaviour play in the onset of cancer? And what biochemical changes are associated with the disease?

These are some of the questions being explored by the Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (Atlantic PATH). Under this ambitious initiative, scientists are recruiting 30,000 adult volunteers from the four Atlantic provinces. The ultimate goal is to find out why some people develop cancer and others don’t, in order to improve its prevention and diagnosis.

What is Atlantic Path?

Atlantic PATH is part of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, the largest study of its kind in Canada. Launched in June 2008, the $42-million study will track the health of 300,000 people in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada over 20 to 30 years.

“The goal of Atlantic PATH is to obtain toenail, blood, urine and other biofluids, along with personal information from up to 30,000 Atlantic Canadians and then follow this group every five years by collecting more samples from each individual,” says Dr. Tobias Karakach, a researcher at the NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences (NRC-IMB) in Halifax. “For those people who develop cancer or other metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, it is possible to look at what biological changes occurred from the time we acquire the initial samples and five, 10, 15 or 20 years from now.”

The NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences is overseeing a metabolomics study as part of the Atlantic PATH initiative. Left to right: Nadine Merkley, Dr. Tobias Karakach, Dr. Ray Syvitski

The NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences is overseeing a metabolomics study as part of the Atlantic PATH initiative. Left to right: Nadine Merkley, Dr. Tobias Karakach, Dr. Ray Syvitski

As a partner in this initiative, NRC is overseeing a “metabolomics” study. “Metabolomics involves the comprehensive measurement of changes in the metabolic profile of an individual — including the sugars, amino acids, lipids and other small molecules,” says Dr. Karakach. By measuring the biochemistry of a cell before and after an important physiological or environmental change occurs, scientists can identify which chemicals have increased or decreased in concentration, and then figure out which metabolic pathways were involved.

Tracking metabolic changes

Genomics is the study of the genome or DNA sequences of organisms. Proteomics is the study of the protein components of a cell. An offshoot of genomics and proteomics, metabolomics is the study of the “metabolites” present in a cell — that is, the molecules generated by protein activity.

“When a gene is expressed it signals an organism to produce a certain protein,” says Dr. Tobias Karakach of NRC-IMB. “Gene expression tells you what the cell intends to do, but the ‘metabolome’ tells you exactly what has happened.”

Thus, metabolomics could help researchers determine, for example, whether geographic location influences cancer rates. “We know which people have well water and which have city water; volunteers that use well water, for instance, are likely to have higher arsenic levels in their water,” says Dr. Karakach. This begs the question: “are there any metabolic variations between the two groups, and do those variations influence the likelihood of developing cancer?”

Metabolomics could also help researchers assess the effectiveness of different drugs. “Let’s say one group of patients is given a drug and the other is not,” explains Dr. Karakach. “You can measure which metabolites have changed in concentration within a cell in response to the drug treatment. Walking back, you can figure out what metabolic pathways were affected by the drug treatment, whether the drug targeted the pathway you wanted it to target, or whether it affected a metabolic pathway you don’t want it to target.” Such information could be used to improve treatments for cancer and other diseases.

Related information

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National Research Council of Canada

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