Cancer research, says Windsor scientist, ‘truly is hope’


Biologist Dr. Lisa Porter has five major projects on the go at her University of Windsor lab — targeting brain cancer, blood cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and cancer in general.

“By every measure, she’s one of the foremost researchers in Canada when it comes to cancer,” retired biochemist Dr. Michael Dufresne says of Porter, who since 2004 has attracted almost $4 million in cancer research grants, including three separate grants from the Windsor-based cancer research program Seeds4Hope.

Seeds4Hope provides startup funds for out-of-the-box ideas, so they can get off the ground and attract the attention of national and international agencies. Porter is among a small group of local scientists and oncologists who’ve done just that, multiple times, said Dufresne, who administers Seeds4Hope.

“She keeps coming up with these brilliant ideas that are so incredibly innovative.”

It used to be people thought there’d be one miracle cure for cancer, but as scientists learned how different cancers work differently, they now understand that the battle against cancer involves incremental progress. These days, some cancers are considered less a death sentence and more like a chronic disease, Dufresne said.

“Today, many people survive cancer, and that’s because of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of researchers building on each other’s results,” Porter said. “It’s not just one big eureka moment. Every bit moves us forward and seeing that and contributing to that, to me, is exciting.”

Here are five major projects Porter and her team of 25 are working on:

Multiple myeloma

Treatment for this cancer of blood plasma cells has improved dramatically in recent years with the development of 13 new drugs that help put the cancer into remission. But over time the cancer comes back, and a different drug is used, but each time the effectiveness of the treatment is a little less. When people die from multiple myeloma, it’s because they’ve developed a resistance to the drugs.

“My work looks at why cancer cells become resistant to drugs, what are the mechanisms by which the cell learns to adapt to drugs and can we hit those cells, can we design specific therapies that prevent them from developing this resistance,” Porter said.

Her lab has identified that when there’s a high concentration of a particular protein, the relapse rate is very high. And by manipulating this protein, they’ve been able to resensitize the cancer cells to respond to existing therapies.

Porter is applying for grants to move ahead with the next stage in her research.

Liver cancer

People who develop fatty liver disease have a higher chance of developing liver cancer, but there’s no current method of predicting it. Porter’s lab has identified a genetic marker — if you have it there’s a greater chance you’ll develop liver cancer.

“We’re looking at whether we can use this as a diagnostic tool for people,” she said, meaning if people with fatty liver disease have this marker, they can be monitored to catch the cancer at an early stage.

Glioblastoma multiforme

This is the very aggressive form of brain cancer that has stricken the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. Porter’s team found that the same family of proteins they’ve identified in their multiple myeloma project is also a driving force in GBM. They’re looking at therapies and figuring out which patients will respond to those therapies.

“The disease is so aggressive that the first therapy you pick is very critical, you have to pick a really good one and hope that it’s the one they’re going to respond to,” she said.

Breast cancer

Porter is working with oncologist Dr. Caroline Hamm (her co-director at the Windsor Cancer Research Group) on a clinical trial for patients with triple negative breast cancer, a rare aggressive form of breast cancer with a poorer survival rate. Other breast cancers have receptors that respond well to certain drugs, but triple negative cancers don’t have these receptors, said Porter.

“We’re focusing on what is it that makes those patients not respond and can we make more specific tools to treat those patients.”

Cell division

Cells are constantly growing and then dividing. Once they reach exactly twice their original size they divide, and Porter is examining how a cell knows when to divide. They’ve identified that when two particular proteins come apart, the cell starts to divide. Understanding this basic mechanism helps researchers better understand how diseases can be regulated, Porter said.

“In science we need to keep asking these questions even if we don’t know how they’re tied to certain diseases.”

Porter, who earned her PhD at McMaster and did post-doctoral work at the University of California — San Diego, said when you start doing cancer research, it’s humbling because of how big the questions are and how much has to be done.

“But also, you see how every result we get contributes to things moving forward.”

She said every day research is changing the landscape for people with all types of cancer.

“Because it’s hope, it truly is hope.”

Source: The Windsor Star