Re-cap: Cancer Research Open House

Moncton, New Brunswick September 30th, 2014 admin October 2, 2014

During National Biotechnology Week 2014 we toured the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, New Brunswick. Our tour guide, Ian Chute, who has been ACRI’s Laboratory Manager for 7 years, led a group of curious visitors through ACRI’s state of the art molecular biology labs.

ACRI has grown from a team of one into a 50+ member organisation of talented researchers and staff. After developing and commercializing a revolutionary method that will improve cancer detection, they continue to innovate. The centre is focused on three main areas of cancer research: early detection of disease, enhanced diagnosis, and targeted treatment.

Bench top science

The main research lab is large and open, providing an ideal collaboration space for scientists and their trainees, who each get their own bench space. On the day we visited, the space was a hive of activity over and above the 30+ visitors who went on the tours.

Cell cultures are the workhorse of cancer research

We then had a peek at one of ACRI’s two cell culture rooms. Studying cell cultures is one of the most important tools used in cancer research.  A cell culture line can be used as a model for complex biological systems. This model is used to investigate how cancer progresses and what effect treatments have on cancer cells. This work uses special cell lines that will live and grow in square plastic vessels.

Cell lines have been used in medical research for more than 50 years. One of the first cell lines, HeLa cells, were initiated from a tumour biopsy from a cancer patient in 1951. The patient, Henrietta Lacks, passed way due to cervical cancer shortly thereafter, but her contribution to research lives on. This cell line has been maintained and used by thousands of researchers for cancer research as well as for work on other diseases, fertility, vaccines and the understanding of basic cell biology. HeLa cells are key to many of the modern breakthroughs in human health.

Cell culture is a robust tool, however by the very nature of the cells existing outside of the human body, they must be handled with great care. Those square plastic vessels they grow in must be ultra-clean, or else unwanted fungi and bacteria will grow in the vessel as well. These contaminants can sideline a research project quickly!

Most of the equipment in ACRI’s cell culture room is dedicated to keeping the cultures clean. A laminar flow hood is an enclosed bench with special air filters that allow the scientists to open the culture vessels in a sterile environment.

Other equipment in the cell culture room includes fridges and freezers to store the cells and media that provides nutrients for their growth. There is also a microscope for checking in on how the cells are doing and equipment used for counting the cells.

Cell lines are catalogued and housed in several “banks” around the world. Many specialized cell line products are sold by suppliers, they are shipped to researchers in a frozen state. The cells are thawed and given growth media, then the cells multiply and provide enough material for the scientist to work with.

Visualizing cancer cells

Next we had a look at the microscopy room, where the researchers have access to both a confocal and a fluorescence microscope. These tools allow for visualization of cells. Special reagents and techniques are used to label different parts of the cells with different colours. These techniques are built into a research project, so that specific questions can be answered about what happens to proteins, lipids and nucleic acids inside cancer cells under certain experimental conditions.

Cutting edge discovery tools

ACRI has two key discovery tools that allow scientists to get a snapshot of what is going on at a molecular level in a cancer cell: mass spectrometry and nucleic acid sequencing. These platforms at ACRI are truly 21st century innovations that are key to advancing the understanding of cancer. Both techniques allow for exploratory research, meaning that you don’t need to limit the research question to one particular protein or gene.  These methods provide oodles of data that, when expertly interpreted, are high power tools in cancer research.

Dr. David Barnett introduced us to ACRI’s mass spectrometer (code name: hybrid quadrupole-Orbitrap Q-Exactive). This type of instrument identifies the amount and type of chemicals in a sample by measuring the mass to charge ratio of particles. From the machine’s output the operator can figure out the atomic structure of any chemical. Mass specs have been around for nearly 100 years and were used for simple chemical structures that contain on the order of tens to hundreds of atoms.

The recent addition of computer algorithms as well as refinements to the spectrometer itself have made the mass spec an important tool for biological samples. Chemicals of interest to cancer researchers such as proteins can contain hundreds of thousands of atoms. Now the complicated data generated by a mass spec can be analyzed using computer software and used to identify specific proteins. The team at ACRI can do just that – analyze complex samples prepared in the lab and provide results that inform development of new cancer diagnosis techniques.

Finally we were introduced to Dr. Nicolas Crapoulet and ACRI’s next-generation sequencing instruments. These machines are called “Next-Gen” because the technology is so much more efficient than the techniques that were widely used just 6 years ago.

The technology (code-name: Ion Torrent) can provide ACRI researchers with accurate DNA and RNA sequences for the biological materials they are working with. Dr. Crapoulet’s research is focused on a particular type of RNA (non-coding RNA) that is involved in the formation and development of cancer. Next-gen sequencing techniques allow him to study exactly how these RNAs operate in hopes of developing new cancer treatments.

The next-gen sequencers also have an important clinical role. There are actually 4 sequencers in the Georges Dumont Centre, two in the ACRI lab and two in the Diagnostics Lab. The Diagnostics Lab can use the sequencers to analyze samples from real patients. This information guides the clinician on personalized treatments for colon cancer and lung cancer patients.

These next-gen sequencers can provide the entire DNA sequence for an individual patient in a matter of days at a fraction of the cost from the early 2000’s – it’s about 2,000 times cheaper now! The sample to be tested gets prepared in the lab then loaded onto a tiny chip with millions of wells. A computer with very high processor power parses the data – a process that requires about 400 GB of hard drive space per sample.

World-Class Research Here at Home

We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to the staff and management at the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute for opening their doors to us. It was impressive to see the capacity for biomedical research they have been able to develop over recent years. We often hear about the fight against cancer, and the ACRI team is truly committed to working on the front lines.

If you would like to learn more about some of the cancer research taking place in New Brunswick, visitCancerResearchSavesLives.ca. There you can also show your support by becoming a Friend of ACRI or making a charitable donation.

 

 

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