Research

New cancer-fighting funds to help patients with aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma

August 27, 2015
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By Carol Thorbes

Half a million dollars in new funding is helping Simon Fraser University researcher Ryan Morin advance his efforts to help patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma live longer with less pain, and potentially even be cured.

Morin, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, is among six national researchers to receive Terry Fox New Investigator Awards.

The three-year awards, distributed by the Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) to promising researchers and co-funded by the Terry Fox Foundation and another co-funder, are game changers for many recipients at a critical stage in their research progress. Morin, who works at the BC Cancer Agency, is also co-funded by the BC Cancer Foundation.

He will now move ahead with trying to advance scientific understanding of how aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) genes continue to mutate after initial diagnosis of the cancer. In aggressive forms of NHL, tumour cells grow and spread throughout the body much faster than those in non-aggressive forms of this cancer.

Most NHL types are more common among people aged 60 or older because the incidence rate increases with age, particularly later in middle age. There are also some viruses that are known to be associated with increased risk of lymphoma, in particular Epstein Barr virus and HIV.

As a lifetime probability, Canadian men have a 2.4 per cent chance of getting NHL, while the probability for women is 1.9 per cent.

“Examples of aggressive NHLs are diffused large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) and mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), both addressed by my research,” says Morin. “These cancers require treatment as soon as they are diagnosed as the patient would likely very quickly succumb to the disease.”

The TFRI grant will enable Morin to develop blood tests that leverage existing DNA sequencing techniques for exposing where cells mutate on aggressive NHL genomes and transform our normal blood cells into lymphoma cells.

“We don’t yet know enough about how this process continues while patients are being treated and what genetic changes contribute to treatment resistance and relapse. This is what our study for DLBCL and MCL is investigating, “ explains Morin.

“If our research tells us what mutations prevent certain drugs from working, we may eventually find new drugs that work better on those populations of tumour cells that contain such mutations.”

Another potential benefit of the simple blood tests Morin is developing would be replacing the invasive tumour biopsies currently used to track aggressive NHL’s mutations.

“Blood tests are not fun, but they are a lot easier than a biopsy,” says Morin. “They could more easily and quickly help us choose the right combination of drugs to kill all the tumour cells in the first treatment, before they mutate.”