Donors do make a difference, as the laboratory of Dr. Kevin Petrecca, neurosurgeon-in-chief at The Neuro, can attest from the enormous support it has received in the past four years from the annual fundraising gala called A Brilliant Night (ABN).
As a result of ABN funds, the lab recruited additional highly skilled staff and was able to take advantage of newly developed single cell profiling technologies that have accelerated the pace of ground-breaking work on the aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma.
As ABN prepares to mark its fifth anniversary gala on Oct. 23, what does the future hold for the Petrecca laboratory?
“ABN enables us to ask big questions and use innovative approaches to answer these questions,” says Dr. Petrecca. “We’re continually pushing to understand the origin and development of brain cancers and their microenvironment to develop enlightened therapies. Brain cancer has been treated as though its one uniform cancer entity, but it’s not. And there is good evidence that the immune system and the cancer interact to affect the nature of cancer development.”
Tissues contain many different cell types. To differentiate these varied cells, the Petrecca lab, and his partners Drs. Jiannis Ragoussis and Guillaume Bourque at McGill Genome Center, have been using new single cell sequencing technologies to sequence the RNA and DNA of tens of thousands of individual brain cancer cells.
Leading this sequencing work is Dr. Charles Couturier, a neurosurgery resident who was interested in studying cancer cell heterogeneity.
“RNA single-cell sequencing is an extremely hot topic,” says Dr. Couturier. “But the cost barriers are high. We’re very fortunate to have A Brilliant Night to support it. Also it’s fortunate that Dr. Petrecca’s surgical practice at The Neuro makes it possible to analyze patient-derived tissue the same day rather than having to study cells cultured for a long time or shipped by plane.”
Together Dr. Petrecca and Dr. Couturier developed the ideas for sequencing cells and Dr. Couturier designed the experiments and analyzed the tremendous amount of acquired data.
“We have an upcoming paper that characterizes the heterogeneity of all the different kinds of cancer cells in the tumours of many of Dr. Petrecca’s patients,” says Dr. Couturier. “We’ll then look to see whether there are any underlying patterns.”
The lab has identified a dozen or so genes whose molecules could possibly be put to future clinical use.
Another future step is investigating recurrent glioblastoma.
“The lab will look at tissues that were resected from patients when their cancers recurred. Finding which cancer cells resist treatments to drive recurrences is critical,” says Dr. Couturier.
The Petrecca lab also uses new technologies to further study cancer genomics at the single cell level.
“While stem cells are differentiating into various types of cells, they are very plastic. But there’s a point of no return,” notes Dr. Couturier. “We look for that point of no return so that potentially these cells could be much better suited for treatment.”
Dr. Petrecca believes that his lab is working in an exciting time.
“Technology today lets us do things we could not have imagined five years ago. Our understanding of cancer’s complexity is at an unprecedented level. Examining individual cancer cells is extraordinary, of course, but what’s missing is our knowledge of the physical organization of the cancer with the immune system and embedded within the brain, all of which affect the cancer. It could be another five years before we can put effective therapeutics in the clinic, but everything we do is an investment in the future.”