Leukemia, breast cancer and ovarian cancer research focus of new awards

Profs. Jim Petrik, Marc Coppolino and Paul Spagnuolo

By Shannon Mustard


            New support from the Cancer Research Society is helping advance research by three University of Guelph faculty members—Profs. Marc Coppolino, Jim Petrik and Paul Spagnuolo—to prevent and treat leukemia, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Spagnuolo, Department of Food Science, and his team of graduate students are studying how food-derived molecules could treat leukemia.

Their study began five years ago, when they discovered that a fat compound, Avocatin B, in avocados could help reduce the growth of leukemia cancer cells.

They removed it, transformed it into a powder form (similar to protein powder for smoothies), and found they could put the powder into a supplement form.

Spagnuolo says the potential use of concentrated food compounds for medical therapy is widely underestimated.

 “People can’t just assume that eating whole avocados will result in the effects we’re finding,” he says.

In the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, researcher Coppolino is looking at how cancer moves to different parts of the body. He’s focussed on the relationship between cancer cells and what’s called their extracellular matrix, a collection of molecules outside cells that support them structurally and biochemically.

He hopes to characterize certain proteins that assist the movement of cancer cells within their extracellular matrix, to create better targeted treatment methods.

“Movement of cells through the extracellular matrix is involved in breast cancer metastasis, the movement of cancer cells from the primary tumour to other sites in the body,” he says. “If we can identify proteins that assist this movement of cells, then we can look for ways to interrupt the function of the proteins in cancer cells.” 

Biomedical Sciences researcher Petrik is looking at how to use viruses to attack cancer cells. He received support from the Cancer Research Society to increase the uptake and efficacy of what are referred to as oncolytic viruses for advanced stage ovarian cancer patients.

Oncolytic viruses selectively terminate cancer cells, while avoiding healthy cells.

Along with Prof. Jack Lawler of Harvard University, Petrik identified an amino acid mechanism that produces a more efficient delivery of the oncolytic virus to the body.

“Incorporating a chain of amino acids used in therapeutics will assist and enhance blood supply to the tumour, allowing a greater amount of the virus to be delivered to the tumor so it can destroy cancer cells,” he says.

The use of oncolytic viruses is not limited to advanced ovarian cancer, he adds—it has the potential to work in other vascularized, hormonally-responsive tumours such as breast, prostate and lung cancer.

Others sponsors of this cancer research includes the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, NSERC and Ovarian Cancer Canada.