Montreal

Breast cancer tissue bank brings Quebec researchers together

A recently established bank of tissue samples collected from Quebec breast cancer patients is expected to help medical professionals from across the province diagnose and treat the illness in all its forms.

Project leader says biobanking allows research to 'advance much more rapidly'

Dr. Anne-Marie Mes-Masson and research assistant Liliane Meunier show their research. More than 10,000 breast cancer patients have participated so far. (CHUM)

A recently established bank of tissue samples collected from Quebec breast cancer patients is expected to help medical professionals from across the province diagnose and treat the illness in all its forms.

"More than 10,000 women have participated in this research," said Dr. Anne-Marie Mes-Masson, who led the research team behind the biobanking project. 

"It's a very effective way for a community to work together and really make science advance much more rapidly."

Mes-Masson is an associate scientific director in basic and translational research at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM). Tissue has been collected over the last 15 years with the help the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation and other organizations.

Samples are collected from consenting patients and stored at three academic hospitals in the province for further study.  

Thanks to the biobank, experts can examine the samples and patient's clinical data. (CHUM)

Similar programs exist for other types of cancers, she said, and there have been considerable advancements in diagnosis and treatment in, for example, ovarian and prostate cancers because of the practice.

"Breast cancer is not one disease, but actually a family of diseases that have different molecular bases," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"We need to cover all of them. Some are more rare. Some are more frequent."

Research examines outcome, treatment

Experts can examine the samples and patient's clinical data, doing biomarker research in an effort to determine the type of cancer, the typical outcome and the most effective treatment.

"Biomarkers are sort of like the road signs that tell us that the disease is going to be aggressive or not aggressive," said Mes-Masson. 

"We look for these types of markers because it helps us when we're thinking about the different types of cancers, how we can treat them and outcomes for women."

After asking women if they would be willing to participate in the program, Mes-Masson said the tissue is saved from surgery and the clinical data is collected throughout her treatment.

Dr. Anne-Marie Mes-Masson says the tissue bank allows researchers to better understand different types of breast cancer. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

"We can call follow that woman through that treatment and see if she responds well," she said, noting the samples are stored at three different academic hospitals in the province. 

Narrowing the bank down to 2,000 different samples allows researchers to have a general representation of breast cancer across Quebec.

2,000 samples to choose from

Researchers across Quebec can apply to access the 2,000 samples to study. They then send the results back "to us and then we are going to be able to put hundreds of these biomarkers together on the same cohort of women," she said, adding that more than 10 researchers have applied to study Quebec's breast cancer sample bank

When all researchers are using the same set of samples, it makes it possible to combine and compare all the information gleaned from the studies. Cancer treatments vary by country and province, she said, as do the people.

"We want to use a comparative of what treatments that we have here in Quebec," said Mes-Masson.

"So it's important to have a cohort that really reflects our heritage and also how we are treating people in our medical system."

So far, there don't appear to be any notable differences between the types and rate of breast cancers that women are diagnosed with in Quebec, she said.

Researchers across Quebec can apply to access the 2,000 samples to study and the information gleaned from those studies is then compiled, becoming a resource for doctors. (Torin Halsey/Associated Press)

However, cohorts are being established internationally and that will allow for further study and comparison. 

"Fortunately, 85 per cent are actually cured of their breast cancer and are long-term survivors, but we really need to focus on that 15 per cent for which our treatments are not good," she said.

"What we're hoping is that these biomarkers will help us identify those 15 per cent early so that we can start looking for solutions — treatments that will help these women."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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