ARCHIVED - NRC Holmes Award winner studies the genetics of breast cancer

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November 03, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

The 2011 H.L. Holmes Award has gone to Toronto geneticist Dr. Adam Shlien, whose post-doctoral research combines genetic sequencing with computer informatics to better understand how breast cancer works.

The two-year, $100,000-per-year award supports Dr. Shlien’s work at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. His research will also eventually contribute to the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), which leads worldwide efforts to map common cancer genomes.

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in women, causing more than 5000 deaths per year in Canada alone. Dr. Shlien says that his team’s work to understand the fundamental biology of cancer tumours is laying the foundation for a “very ambitious” long-term goal: treatment tailored to every patient.

Breast cancer was long diagnosed and treated as one disease. But recent research has shown that it’s actually a cluster of many cancers, any one of which can mutate to exploit vulnerabilities particular to a patient’s unique genetic makeup.

“The ultimate goal — and we’re still far from reaching it — is to be able to sequence an individual’s genome in order to direct a targeted therapy that attacks the mutations that are present in that individual’s genome.”

Searching for the mutations that cause breast cancer

The human genome contains more than 3.4 billion genetic base pairs, among which are scattered around 6000 mutations that may cause breast cancer.

Dr. Shlien’s project involves sequencing 1500 breast cancer tumour samples amassed by the Sanger Institute over many years, the largest number yet used in a study of this type.

Taking 17 gigabytes of genetic data from each sample, he’ll use the Sanger Institute’s “computer farm”, running over 6000 parallel processors, to compare and contrast thousands of gigabytes of information, looking for the complex ways that various types of mutations in the breast cancer cluster affect genes and the messages that they send to each other.

In addition to sequencing cancer DNA, Dr. Shlien is scrutinizing RNA (ribonucleic acid) for “transcriptome” information. This information can show how proteins “express” or transmit genetic information, sometimes corrupting it in the process, and what that does in context of the disease.

“These are really revolutionary, exciting times for next-generation sequencing, where we can think about sequencing whole genomes very quickly and very cheaply,” he says.

Dr. Shlien, also a bio-informatician, is taking a “global” approach, meaning that instead of starting his analysis with one gene or mutation, he relies on the Sanger Institute’s massive computer to find and analyse mutations across all possible genes that might cause breast cancer.

Photo of Holmes Award recipient Dr. Adam Shlien at  Sanger Institute in Cambridge, where he’s combining next-generation genetic sequencing and bio-informatics skills to uncover the complex causes of breast cancer.

Holmes Award recipient Dr. Adam Shlien at Sanger Institute in Cambridge, where he’s combining next-generation genetic sequencing and bio-informatics skills to uncover the complex causes of breast cancer.

“We’re integrating a lot of data together to find specific mutations and large-scale patterns,” he says.”Part of the challenge is that because you’re open to any possibility, you find a lot more... the benefit is that you can find things you didn’t expect to find.”

Dr. Shlien says that this type of genetic research takes huge amounts of raw computing power, and it’s only recently that it has become possible at all.

The Sanger Institute continues to increase its processing power to stay abreast of the genetic information it gathers, and researchers worldwide continue to contribute results to ICGC as it builds exhaustive maps of most common cancer genes. The Holmes Award aids his own research greatly.

“It’s a very generous amount, and it makes an enormous difference to a scientist such as myself,” says Dr. Shlien. “It’s a huge boost, and it’s very humbling, actually, to have been chosen for the award.”

About the H.L. Holmes Award

The H.L. Holmes Award is named for Dr. R.H.L Holmes, the Alberta research chemist who made it possible. “Established by the NRC in honour of the late Dr. R.H.L. Holmes, the award gives  post-doctoral researchers a kick-start in their careers” says Dr. Larry Leonardi, award committee secretary. “The award is substantial, and it gives a post-doctoral researcher the opportunity to study at world-renowned graduate schools or research organizations.”

Learn more about the H.L. Holmes Awards for Post-Doctoral Studies.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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