Researcher receives national award for cancer care innovation

Cancer care

Researcher receives national award for cancer care innovation

Post-doctoral researcher Irsa Wiginton has launched a simple blood test that can track breast cancer progression.

By Julie Brown

May 26, 2023


Dr. Isra Wiginton

A post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute has been recognized nationally for her groundbreaking work to monitor breast cancer using a simple, routine blood test.

Irsa Wiginton has launched a liquid biopsy specifically for metastatic breast cancer, and the test is now undergoing its first clinical trials. For this innovation, Dr. Wiginton was presented the Mitacs Global Impact Entrepreneur Award on May 18 at a ceremony in Waterloo.

The blood test, developed by mDetect Inc, a company she co-founded, monitors specific epigenetic markers in tumour DNA that are shed into a patient’s bloodstream and uses next-generation sequencing to quantify changes in tumour volume. One tube of blood, drawn every one or two weeks, can accurately measure if a tumour is shrinking or continuing to grow, indicating whether the current treatment therapy is working.

“Right now, the only way to see whether patients are responding to treatment or not is through imaging tests (CT scans) which are done every couple of months,” Dr. Wiginton says. “Unfortunately, people with metastatic breast cancer don’t have a good prognosis. On average, they only have two years or less to live, so there’s no time to waste when it comes to determining their most effective course of treatment.”

The blood test builds on the work by Queen’s researcher and mDetect Inc president and founder, Christopher Mueller (Queen’s Cancer Research Institute). It works for all subtypes of breast cancer and all forms of therapy, including hormone therapy and chemotherapy. Rather than waiting months for an imaging test, oncologists will know how patients are progressing within four to five days of their bloodwork and can change the treatment if necessary. The fast turnaround also means patients who are experiencing debilitating side effects from an ineffective treatment won’t suffer longer than necessary.

“In the late stages of a patient’s cancer journey, oncologists often struggle with what treatment to pick and know that most patients will not respond to a given therapy, making it difficult to select subsequent treatment options,” Dr. Wiginton explains. “We’re giving them a tool that allows them to make an informed decision that ultimately leads to a better outcome and a higher quality of life for patients.”

The detection method launched its first observational clinical study in April and is currently in the process of recruiting 150 metastatic breast cancer patients to participate through Kingston Health Sciences Centre and Ottawa General Hospital. Based on the outcome of the trial, the next step will be Health Canada and FDA approval, with the goal to be in the market within three years.

“A blood test is a very easy way to monitor cancer,” says Dr. Wiginton, adding that future plans include using the liquid biopsy to detect cancer relapse as well. “It integrates seamlessly into the patient’s current standard of care – just one extra tube with their current blood work – and they get the benefit of knowing whether or not their treatment is working sooner, before it’s too late.”

Dr. Wiginton is one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians. Mitacs is an innovation organization that helps companies solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions. Dr. Wiginton was also presented with $5,000 from the organization.

For more information on the award, visit the Mitacs website.

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