Research teams unite to fight cancer

A chance meeting at a local science fair, a lab tour and some discussions over coffee have led to an innovative research partnership between a University of Lethbridge physics research team that looks into the far reaches of space, and a cancer research team from the same University that is chasing down rogue cancer cells deep inside in the human body.

Dr. Roy Golsteyn (Biological Sciences) and Dr. David Naylor (Physics and Astronomy) knew each other in passing – their labs are one floor and a staircase away and their offices are only a few hundred feet apart in University Hall.

Their completely different academic worlds would not generally collide, but now that they have, they are finding a lot of possibilities in their collaborative work.

Naylor and his team design imaging equipment that is helping to bring the far reaches of space into clearer focus. Their technology, which is presently functioning on the Herschel Space Observatory more than 1.5 million km from the earth, helps to identify regions of star formation by imaging their size, shape and composition based on the spectral signatures they emit.

As Herschel scans the universe and captures images of large fields of galaxies, their sheer number requires the use of sophisticated computer algorithms to determine the nature of the individual sources, for example differentiating between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy.

Naylor says that the same process, which leaves researchers with a smaller field of unknown objects to further explore, can be applied to searching for, and focusing on, cells that develop abnormally and which could either be cancerous or prone to cancer.

"We have been collaborating with a local spin-off company, Blue Sky Spectroscopy Inc., to see if some of our imaging processes could work on breast cancer cells, and have been testing slides provided to us by research colleagues at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Alta.," says Naylor, noting that he generally doesn't have access to live cancer cells.

"Thanks to Roy and his team, we can now work on live cells, and test how our computer modeling software will work."

The idea that the same process can serve two completely different research disciplines landed them an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions award of $50,000 and an internal Interdisciplinary Research Development Fund (IRDF) award of $100,000 over two years. It also led them to join forces with colleague and cancer researcher Dr. Olga Kovalchuk (Biological Sciences) to employ the complete spectrum of cancer research at the University to this important problem.

Golstyen, who has a cancer cell culture system plus decades of research experience in cancer cell observation in Canada and France, is pleased that both groups are turning their attention to how to better track and identify cells which are prone to cancer.

"In biology, looks can be deceiving," says Golsteyn. "When we look at a population of cancer cells with the standard technology (used in biology), we cannot see differences, but we know some cells are different because they will become resistant to a treatment. We discovered the moment when cancer cells "decide" to live or die after a treatment, but our predicament is that we don't know which cell is 'bad' or 'good', so to speak. We believe that looking at cells in a new way using the technology from Dr. Naylor's laboratory will help us solve this problem."

Golsteyn's work involves tracking down cells that do not get killed off by cancer treatments and instead hide out until they can essentially explode and repopulate a system with more cancer cells. Identifying these rogue cells is the prime focus of his research, but identifying them in a mass of other cells is quite time consuming.

"We are excited to be a part of this project because we see that over time it will allow us to develop a more accurate method of identifying cells which have developed normally, versus those cells which need further examination."

Since a petri dish of live cancer cells – potentially hundreds of thousands of small dots under a microscope – looks very much like a wide field of unexplored galaxies and star formations, (sample images attached) both researchers are confident their ideas can be refined, but like most pure science projects, it may take years before they successfully apply technology that was developed for imaging star formations in space to tracking live cancer cells.

The IRDF awards are funded by the U of L's Office of Research and Innovation Services to jump-start ideas that display inter-departmental or inter-faculty co-operation and innovation.