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Young Talent at the Queen's Cancer Research Institute

Dr. Andrew Craig
Cancer Biology and Genetics

When cancer is confined to a single site, it’s often possible to remove the tumor through surgery, and sometimes this is enough to ensure a good outcome for the patient. However, if cancer cells break free from the tumor site and spread to other parts of the body – a process known as metastasis – more aggressive and systemic treatments are required and the survival rates of patients are greatly reduced.

To prevent metastasis, you first need to know how it works. Enter Andrew Craig, an associate professor in the Queen’s Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, whose QCRI research team studies human-derived cancer cells. In the lab, they remove certain cancercell genes thought to be involved in metastasis to see whether this affects the cell’s ability to breach a proteinrich barrier that encircles the tumor. They have found that if key pathways in cancer cells are altered, the ability to break through the barrier is impaired. The next step is to see what happens to the same altered cells in an animal model of cancer metastasis.

So far, Craig’s lab has identified several proteins that play a role in cancer metastasis, particularly in breast, lung and skin cancer (melanoma) – cancer types that are prone to spread to other parts of the body. The long-term plan is to use this knowledge to develop a new type of cancer therapy that specifically targets aberrant proteins or enzymes that enable cancer cells to metastasize. In some patients, this type of therapy could complement existing therapies that target rapidly growing cancer cells.

Craig is also investigating the role that normal white blood cells (the basis of our immune system) may play in metastasis. There is evidence that cancer cells can co-opt white blood cells to aid the metastasis process, in effect upending their normal disease-fighting function. Craig and his collaborators are working towards a type of therapy that will “awaken” the white blood cells so that instead of remaining passive or ineffective against cancer cells, they actively attack them.

“To me it’s a very exciting time for cancer research,” says Craig, who earned the 2011 Young Investigator Award from the Canadian Cancer Society. “In addition to developing better targeted therapies against the tumor, we can also find therapies that reenergize our immune system to finish the job and prevent metastasis.”

See features on Dr. Penny Bradbury and Dr. Chris Booth to learn more about Young Talent at the Queen's Cancer Research Institute.

Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 5 Spring 2014