Alberta Cancer Foundation

Banking on Progress

Dr. Sambasivaro Damaraju

There was a time when oncologists and researchers in Alberta saved cancer tissue samples in local freezers for their own research project. This idea worked well for individual purposes, but did nothing to advance research on a larger scale.

All of that changed in 2001 when a team led by Dr. Sambasivaro Damaraju built a bigger and better tumour bank. Housed in the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, the tumour bank collects, properly stores and documents information for all donated tumour tissues. Most of the specimens are accessed by Alberta researchers but requests have come in from around the world.

Funded in part by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the tumour bank allows researchers to accelerate the discovery from lab-based research to patient care. One recent example of the tumour bank's importance was with the announcement that made headlines around the world: scientists from Edmonton, British Columbia and England had decoded the complex genetic makeup of the hard-to-treat, deadliest form of breast cancer.

The study was published in the prestigious journal, Nature. Dr. Damaraju and Dr. John Mackey from the Cross Cancer Institute were co-authors of the study and happy to be part of the international effort, led by Dr. Samuel Aparicio at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

Patients diagnosed with these cancers often have poor prognosis and standard treatments available are not effective for all patients. Researchers sequenced DNA isolated from more than 100 tumours to identify common and unique genome level signatures.

"The message was very clear," says Damaraju. "Not all tumours even within the subtype of triple negative breast cancer are alike, meaning that novel drugs are needed to target these various subtypes. This research will pave the way for developing new drugs and treatment modalities."

The research team couldn't have learned this so quickly without the invaluable tumour specimens collected in Alberta and available for long years of follow-up post diagnosis. Treatment information and outcomes for the patients treated with standard therapies are key to drive research projects of this nature. "We are happy and proud of the contributions made and the role the tumour bank played," says Damaraju. "We are thankful to the donors and funding agencies who made this happen and most importantly, the patients who consented to participated in a research study by donating the tumour tissues left over from diagnostic procedures.

"This is an excellent example of investment versus return — tumours banked more than 10 years ago have become invaluable and contributed to the research productivity today. The technology has just started to mature and giving incredible dividends for an investment of this kind."

Damaraju also recently contributed to a major international reference book series on tumour quality and control, the first of its kind in the world.

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