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Tracking the Spread of Cancer: Nano-sized Particles Hunt Down Cancer Cells One By One

by NationTalk on May 2, 2008749 Views

New project among 76 announced today by the Canadian Cancer Society

TORONTO, May 1 – Pioneering the use of nanomedicine to catch the spread of cancer at its earliest stage is the focus of one of 76 new research grants announced today by the Canadian Cancer Society. The new $253,000, three-year grant will study “targeted cellular imaging”-a simple, non-surgical method of detecting metastatic cancer well before it reaches an untreatable stage. The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Paula Foster of the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario, says metastasis – when cancer spreads from its original location to another part of the body – is the most common cause of cancer death.

“The earlier we can detect the spread of cancer, the better the patient’s outcome is likely to be,” says Dr. Foster, who is pioneering this technique on mice and predicts it will be ready to test with humans in five years. Her lab was the first in the world to show that it’s possible to track a single cancer cell.

Currently, the only way to find out if cancer has spread is by performing a surgical lymph-node biopsy. There are also blood tests for some inherited forms of cancer. Dr. Foster’s targeted cellular imaging technique involves a safe, simple injection of tiny amounts of iron oxide combined with certain cancer-binding antibodies, and then watching the particles migrate towards the cancer, using MRI. These nanoparticles can be as small as one-billionth of a metre, far too small to be seen with a conventional lab microscope.

“One of the things we’re so excited about is that we can be so specific with this advanced MRI technology,” says Dr. Foster. Using a specialized micro-imager, researchers can watch the magnetic particles as they travel around the body to hunt down and then stick to the cancer.

Dr. Paula Foster’s story
This Canadian Cancer Society grant is Dr. Foster’s first cancer research grant. She spent the early years of her research career developing the cell-tracking technology, but didn’t initially make the link to cancer. “I knew we were really on to something when I showed it to my colleagues who are cancer researchers, and they were just blown away by the possibilities,” she says.

“When I heard I got this grant, I could hardly believe it. I know the competition for funding is very tough,” says Dr. Foster. “Knowing that the best minds in the scientific cancer community think highly of this idea – that they believe in it – it’s very encouraging. I’m so grateful.”

The 76 grants announced today were selected after a rigorous national application and review process. These leading-edge cancer research projects bring the Society’s total investment in cancer research to almost $49 million in 2008.

“Canadians tell us research is one of the most important reasons they donate to the Society, so we are very pleased to add these new projects to the broad spectrum of world-class research we fund,” says Dr. Barbara Whylie, CEO, Canadian Cancer Society. “Research is critical to our mission of eradicating cancer and enhancing the lives of people living with cancer, and these new projects represent tremendous hope for making cancer history.”

Also among the 76 research grants announced today by the Society:

Early detection of lung cancer using an electronic nose: More people die of lung cancer than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined, but it is difficult and expensive to detect the early stages of lung cancer. Dr. Annette McWilliams in Vancouver was awarded $347,000 over three years to investigate how a non-invasive and inexpensive breathalyzer test – or “electronic nose” – may detect signs of early lung cancer in people at high risk, which may help to target those most in need of more intensive screening.

Preventing chemotherapy mistakes: Chemotherapy drugs can be very toxic, so chemotherapy delivery errors can be particularly harmful to patients. Dr. Vishal Kukreti, based in Toronto, was awarded a $35,000 feasibility grant to study how the use of bar-coded chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients could prevent potentially life-threatening errors.

Self-administered vaginal swabs in Canada’s North: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of most cervical cancer. Dr. Paul Brassard, based in Montreal, was awarded $33,000 to investigate whether it is acceptable and effective for women in remote areas, such as the Inuit in Northern Quebec, to detect HPV with self-administered vaginal swabs. He will compare this approach with conventional cervical swabs done by a health professional and the results will inform future practices.

Lifetime impacts of surviving cancer in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood: Cancer in young people can result in lifelong effects, including medical, psychological, educational and social problems often, but not always, related to treatment. Dr. Mary McBride and her team, based in Vancouver, were awarded almost $3 million over five years to evaluate these impacts with the goal of ensuring these survivors receive the post-treatment support they need.

How arsenic causes cancer: Arsenic, a naturally-occurring element, is known to cause cancer, but scientists do not understand how, or at what levels it is carcinogenic. Dr. Chris Le, based in Edmonton, was awarded $442,000 over four years to study how arsenic interferes with the body’s repair of damaged DNA so that ultimately health agencies can develop guidelines to prevent or reduce arsenic-induced cancers.

Easing distress in cancer patients: Living with cancer is not only a physical experience, but also presents spiritual, existential and psychological challenges. Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, based in Winnipeg, was awarded $446,000 over three years to test a new Patient Dignity Inventory with 125 clinicians across Canada, and to gauge how this tool could help cancer care practitioners recognize and ease distress in cancer patients.

For a complete list of the new Canadian Cancer Society-funded research grants across the country, visit

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. This year, the Society is providing almost $49 million in funding for leading-edge research across the country. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website at or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For further information: English Media: Christine Harminc, Canadian Cancer Society, (416) 934-5650,; French Media: Alexa Giorgi, Canadian Cancer Society, (416) 934-5681,

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