CIHR funding boosts novel cancer research at Robarts

Robarts scientist John Ronald, PhD, is pioneering a new direction in cancer research. And as one of the recently named recipients of $12.4 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), his work is being recognized for its potential to transform the way we detect and treat the disease.

His research project, Blood-based detection and molecular imaging visualization of cancer using reporter gene vectors called tumor-activatable minicircles, involves the continued development of a new gene-based approach to cancer detection.

Using engineered ‘tumour-activatable minicircles’, Ronald and his research team can ‘turn on’ the expression of an enzyme that is secreted from cells to be detectable in the blood. When injected into the body, the minicircles are silent in normal cells, but ‘glow’ when they enter cancer cells. By introducing these minicircles into the body, researchers can use a blood test to determine if cancer is present or not.

“We believe that in the next few years, we will be able to mature this technology, making it more sensitive to the detection and visualization of small tumours throughout the body,” said Ronald. “This could provide doctors with a new standard for assessing patients at-risk of tumour recurrence, allowing more timely and effective treatments.”

The specific focus of the funded project is to test the system in mouse models carrying various types of tumours, such as breast cancer. Ronald’s team will also look at extending the system to co-express an imaging gene that can be used to determine precisely where the tumour is located.

This is Ronald’s first CIHR grant, and provides more than $600,000 over five years.

“This funding is absolutely critical for my research program and for the future of my scientific career,” he explained. “It not only enables my lab to continue to explore this novel and exciting idea, but it gives us some stability during the next few years to focus on developing other innovative technologies and making new fundamental discoveries.”

“My team is very grateful that we’ve been given this wonderful opportunity,” he added.

Ronald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Western University.

Follow John Ronald on Twitter at @John_A_Ronald