New research project targets metastatic cancers

A researcher in a lab.

One reason cancer can be so devastating is its ability to metastasize or spread to another part of the body. Once cancer spreads, it can take on new, complex genetic changes or affect multiple organs. This makes the cancer much more difficult to treat and can significantly reduce the likelihood of survival.  

Today, an estimated 90% of cancer deaths in Canada are caused by cancer that has metastasized. But specialized research supported by donors to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) could change the future of metastatic cancer.  

A new project funded by a recently-awarded CCS Challenge Grant has the potential to create this change. The project, led by Dr Alison Allan, will investigate whether a series of simple blood tests can identify how far cancer has spread in a person with metastatic disease. If successful, the test could help guide treatment plans that could improve outcomes for people facing metastatic cancer.   

Often, when cancer metastasizes, it spreads to many different parts of the body. However,  in some cases, it spreads to just 1 or 2 places.  

“If spread is limited to just a few sites, and those sites can be identified, then treatments like radiotherapy could effectively target tumours, even after metastasis has occurred,” says Dr Allan, professor at Western University and researcher at the London Health Sciences Centre.  

Currently, however, there is no way for oncologists to determine precisely where and how far cancer has spread. To address this challenge,  Dr Allan and her team will assess whether a series of blood tests can measure the amount of tumour cells and tumour DNA circulating through the bloodstream, as well as immune response. The researchers hope they can use this data to easily detect where in the body cancer has spread so they can target potentially saving live-saving radiotherapy treatments to those sites.   

This incredible work would not be possible without the continued support of our donors. The scientific foundation for Dr Allan’s current  project rests on her team’s previous discoveries,  some which were also funded by CCS grants.  

“Donor funding enabled us to gain important insights into how breast and prostate cancer spreads,” says Dr Allan. “Now,  we’re applying those findings to predict and track cancer’s spread in patients with other types of metastatic cancer.”  

Building on her team’s work to benefit even more people with cancer – including additional rare and hard-to-treat cancers – means a lot to Dr Allan.  

“My father died from pancreatic cancer shortly after I completed my PhD, and it really motivated me to commit my career to cancer research,” says Dr Allan. 

With your support, researchers in Canada are making discoveries that advance our understanding of cancer and improve how we prevent, diagnose, treat and live with and beyond cancer – thank you!