A world without cancer, what would that be like? It seems like an insurmountable goal, but for Dr. Franco Vizeacoumar, Research Scientist at the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and Adjunct Professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, it is something that is constantly in the back of his mind as he pushes the boundaries in cancer research.
“We have this thing in our house,” says Vizeacoumar, “where my wife will make me repeat things she says to make sure I am actually listening, because she knows I am constantly thinking about the research.”
Like so many others, Dr. Vizeacoumar has lost relatives to cancer, which is a motivating factor for why he is so passionate about this research. “The disease isn’t a one person disease. It impacts families and communities,” he says.
The Canadian Cancer Society statistics reveal that this year alone an estimated 2,400 people will die of cancer in Saskatchewan, and 5,500 new cases will be diagnosed. Currently, radiation therapy and chemotherapy have been the only two treatment strategies to fight most cancer types apart from very few limited successes in targeted therapies. Unfortunately, these treatments cause substantial damage to normal tissue. “That is the key issue, none of it is targeted,” says Vizeacoumar. “We are just doing it blindly.”
In 2015, Dr. Vizeacoumar was awarded a SHRF Establishment Grant to explore Synthetic Dosage Lethality (SDL) of genes in colorectal cancer with the goal of developing targeted therapy that selectively kills cancer cells while minimizing toxicity towards normal cells. SDL arises when a combination of mutations in two or more genes leads to cell death.
During Dr. Vizeacoumar’s postdoctoral training at the University of Toronto, he developed a screening platform that can look at every single gene in the genome (i.e. 20,000) and figure out which gene combination will lead to cell death.
“We are building the Google map of cancer cells,” says Vizeacoumar. “Think about it like blocking traffic. If we want to block traffic from the east to west end of the City of Saskatoon, what do we do? We would block routes or roadways to prevent the passage of traffic.” This is essentially what Dr. Vizeacoumar and his team are doing with cancer cells.
However, the main challenge with cancer cells is they only focus on dividing with signals that go from A to B.
“If we try to block the route from A to B,” says Vizeacoumar, “cancer cells will find a different route through C to reach B. But if we have the complete Google map of cancer cells, we will know where to block and perhaps when to block.”
“Our lab studies all the 20,000 genes together in a very unbiased and systematic fashion,” says Vizeacoumar. “We don’t just pick and choose our favourite genes.” For example, the lab looks at both a normal cell and tumour cell to identify how the cells are wired differently with the objective of finding any short circuit in their circuitry network that will shoot down the tumour cells and not the normal cells.
In a span of three to four weeks, the screening platform allows Dr. Vizeacoumar to turn off every single gene in the genome, and then specifically identify which genes to turn off so that it only kills the tumour cells and not the normal cells, all of which is being done in a petri dish.
Without any hesitation, Dr. Vizeacoumar says, “a world without cancer isn’t unattainable. There is still a lot more work that needs to be done, but with the power of technology and genome medicine we are making great progress.” As Dr. Vizeacoumar continues to raise the bar in cancer research, he humbly refers to his research as a small speckle among a larger research community, a research community dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
Read the full story about Dr. Vizeacoumar’s research in Research for Health.