‘Tumour biobank’ brings breast cancer discoveries to the bedside more quickly

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In a move to fast track discoveries in breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention from the lab to the bedside, Dr. Muriel Brackstone, a surgical oncologist with St. Joseph’s Breast Care Program, has developed London’s first breast ‘tumour biobank’.

Patients coming to St. Joseph’s Hospital for a biopsy to diagnose a potential cancer are being asked if they would donate a small fragment of the lump for this biobank, explains Dr. Brackstone, medical director, breast surgery at St. Joseph’s and a scientist with Lawson Health Research Institute.

About 10 breast biopsies are performed each day at St. Joseph’s and, to date, 93 per cent of patients have opted to donate. “Information about any cancers diagnosed in these generous women will be stored to provide scientists with valuable clinical data on how these tumours behave in order to figure out how to outsmart them,” explains Dr. Brackstone.

London is fortunate to have a large number of scientists with diverse expertise working at research and academic centres across the city to better understand breast cancer and ultimately eradicate it.

They are looking at how breast cancer develops and spreads, improved imaging and surgical methods, which patients require chemotherapy and which don’t, testing to predict if the cancer is at risk of returning, and much more. “What they lack is access to patient tumour samples and blood in order to test their theories, develop their imaging tools and create new treatments. The goal is to overcome that obstacle, allowing these scientists, together with oncologists, to translate discoveries in the lab into real discoveries in months instead of years,” she adds.

Barbara Rocco was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, underwent a mastectomy in September, and is now awaiting chemotherapy. She didn’t hesitate when asked if she would donate a sample at the time of her biopsy. “I have two daughters, three grand-daughters and one daughter-in-law,” says Barbara. “Donating a sample was an opportunity to give to research that may someday benefit not only them but all women.

It’s research that will lead to better treatments, better diagnostics and better quality of life for women as they go through this process.” The breast tumour biobank is being housed in the Lawson Health Research Institute through which all hospital research is conducted.

“We have never had an onsite tissue bank at St. Joseph’s Hospital,” says Dr. David Hill, Lawson scientific director and integrated vice president of research at St. Joseph’s and London Health Sciences Centre. ”This will be an important resource to advance cancer research and will provide a valuable facility to advance other areas of research also.”

London’s breast tumor biobank is a stand out in Canada and internationally for the systematic way in which every patient with suspected breast cancer is offered an opportunity to donate tissue at the time of their biopsy, explains Dr. Brackstone. “This saves them having to go back for a separate biopsy procedure. It also allows newly diagnosed breast cancer patients the option of taking part in innovative pre-operative clinical trials – before their cancer surgery – that are not typically available elsewhere in Canada.”

Patients are eager to donate despite what they are going through, adds Dr. Brackstone. “Taking part in research empowers patients.” The tumour biobank is one of many initiatives of St. Joseph’s Breast Care Program focused on the forefront of innovation and treating patients with compassionate clinical excellence.

Tumour biobank – facts and stats

• The tumour biobank allows for the preservation and storage of samples of tumours.

• It is a liquid nitrogen freezer, also known as a cryogenic freezer; that stores samples at -200 degrees Celsius to keep them perfectly pristine.

• The St. Joseph’s tumour biobank can hold 48,000 patient samples. It can be used to store any type of tumour sample and made available to scientists doing any type of cancer research.

• The tumour biobank and collection of pre-treatment tumour samples allows for new directions in clinical research.

• The St. Joseph’s tumour bank is currently being accessed by scientists at research facilities across London.