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February 2013

Revolutionizing breast cancer treatment

Chemotherapy has long been used to treat people with cancer, but its effectiveness varies greatly from patient to patient. For example, when used to treat breast cancer, fewer than 40% of patients respond positively.

However, it is difficult for doctors to determine which patients are not responding to the drugs early in the process, so alternative treatment options can be tried.  As a result, patients can be over-treated, and unnecessarily suffer the side-effects of chemotherapy before realizing it is having little effect.

Masters student Xiaohui Wang at the Department of Computational Mathematics at the University of Waterloo set out to change this through a Mitacs-Accelerate internship with Ontario-based Rna Diagnostics.

Wang helped develop a new tool which allows doctors to determine whether chemotherapy is effectively killing off cancer cells by examining the degradation of their RNA, which along with DNA helps make up the cell nucleus.

Working with her academic supervisor, Associate Professor Mu Zhu, Wang devised a complex algorithm which can reliably identify whether or not cancer cells are being degraded by the chemotherapy treatment.

Her research led to the creation of the RNA Disruption Assay™, which is being commercialized as the first molecular diagnostic test to improve chemotherapy management.

Because the tool’s analysis can be done early in treatment, patients whose cells aren’t responding to the chemotherapy can be switched to other treatment options and avoid the harmful effects.  It also has the potential for significant savings for the health system, as chemotherapy would only be given to patients who are benefiting from it.

Wang said the internship gave her new skills and industry exposure which has led to a full-time job with Rna Diagnostics.  “I would not have had the chance to work with this company without Mitacs-Accelerate.  It has provided me with a great job opportunity and the skills I’ve learned and experience I’ve gained has made me much more competitive than other students.”

Dr. Laura Pritzker, Principal Scientist at Rna Diagnostics said a Mitacs-Accelerate internship was the perfect way to access the research knowledge they needed.  “We required mathematical and statistical expertise to help us develop the algorithm we needed in order to predict the patient’s response to treatment.

“Through Mitacs-Accelerate, we’ve gained a talented employee who is using her substantial mathematical knowledge along with her strong work ethic and intellectual curiosity to make a vital contribution at Rna Diagnostics.  This product will have a significant impact on individual women with breast cancer as well as the healthcare system overall.”
 

Mitacs gratefully acknowledges Industry Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship program and the Government of Ontario for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in the province.