CTV News.ca: PhD student makes groundbreaking discovery that may prevent spread of cancer

A PhD student in Ontario has made a groundbreaking discovery that may have the potential to prevent cancer cells from spreading.

Caitlin Miron, a PhD student in the chemistry department at Queen’s University, has identified a chemical compound that may be able to “switch off” cancer cells in order to stop them from spreading.

Studying at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology in Bordeaux, France, Miron was able to use advanced screening technology to examine a number of compounds from the Petitjean lab at Queen’s University. During her internship, she was able to discover one compound that binds well to four-stranded DNA structure, or guanine quadruplex, which has been linked to the development of cancer and other diseases.

She explained her discovery by comparing a single-stranded DNA to a necklace with beads that move along it until they hit a knot. The beads are the cell machinery that move along the necklace processing the DNA, she said.

“You can go in and untangle that knot, but in this case someone has gone in there first and they’ve used superglue to hold it together,” Miron said. “What we’ve discovered in that case is that glue.”

By binding the newly discovered compound or “superglue” to the quadruplex to secure the “knot” in the chain, scientists may be able to prevent the cell machinery from reaching a particular section of DNA to process it, which would, in turn, prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells, Miron said.

Scientists have been researching quadruplex binders as a possible treatment for cancer for approximately 20 to 30 years, the PhD student explained. However, many of the known binders haven’t yielded results as promising as the one Miron has identified.

“It’s really exciting. It’s exciting to be on the forefront of this field,” she said. “There are other quadruplex binders out there, but what we’re seeing is that ours is very high-performing.”

Miron’s discovery is still in its early stages in terms of commercial development. Her research team has just filed a patent for it and it will be another year before they’re able to finalize it into a formal patent, she said.

“We’re still, at this point, looking at developing the initial hit compounds to see, ‘Can we improve targeting to cancer cells? Can we improve entry into the cells through a membrane?’” Miron said.

The PhD student expects it will take another five to eight years before the compound is developed enough for it to be used commercially.

In the meantime, Miron is being honoured with an award for Outstanding Innovation by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization promoting Canadian research, which will be presented to her at a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday.