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Dr. Rodney Ouellette says that cancer research in Canada is often associated with large cities. But the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute (ACRI), where he is President and Scientific Director, has been contributing to global research in combating cancer from Moncton, NB for 20 years. Approximately 50 ACRI researchers focus on three key areas of cancer research: early detection of disease, enhanced diagnosis, and targeted treatment.

Dr. Ouellette says there’s no easy recipe for building a strong reputation for research. “You have to go out and do good research and hope that it leads to something promising that others will find significant.

Liquid biopsy

ACRI’s biggest success has been their research on the technique of liquid biopsy.

Dr. Stephen Lewis, ACRI’s Assistant Scientific Director, says the process involves using a sample of a patient’s blood or urine to diagnose disease instead of a traditional tissue biopsy, which is not only more invasive but takes more time and effort.

“The technology we developed for this allows us to isolate the really important material from a blood or urine sample and then do a diagnostic test to find biomarkers that indicate disease,” says Dr. Lewis.

The test uses virus-sized particles containing specific proteins and nucleic acids released from cancer cells called extracellular vesicles. The liquid biopsy technology developed at ACRI can rapidly and efficiently detect the vesicles. Other researchers have developed biomarkers for certain types of cancer that rely on tissue biopsy and they can benefit from the ACRI’s research to see if they can do so with liquid biopsy.

“We’re pushing forward the research here internally, but we’re also helping others move their research forward and hopefully provide a better outcome for the patient,” Dr. Lewis adds.

Remi Richard, the ACRI’s business development officer, says the institute has collaborated with organizations not only in Canada but in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

“Our patented liquid biopsy technology has caught the interest of worldwide researchers and companies who want to take liquid biopsy to the next level.”

Looking forward

The ACRI is also conducting research into gene editing and targeting involving the CRISPR system. This allows researchers to find out if a particular gene is important to keep a cancer cell alive, and could lead to the development of new therapeutics. The technique, a relatively new one at ACRI, has already been achieving results.

“We‘ve uncovered some very promising leads with regards to new and unexpected targets for lung cancer, and have used it successfully for breast and kidney cancer as well,” says Dr. Ouellette.

In addition to marking the institute’s twentieth year, 2018 will also see the opening of the New Brunswick Centre for Precision Medicine. Supported by all levels of government, the centre will bring the ACRI as well as researchers from the Université de Moncton, the Vitalité Health Network and the satellite program of the Université de Sherbrooke medical school under one roof in New Brunswick’s first purpose built precision medicine research centre. Richard says this will give the region a critical mass of highly qualified personnel and equipment to conduct cancer research, offer leading edge diagnostics, foster innovation, and operate clinical trials.

Dr. Ouellette says that research centres are often measured by what they achieve besides simply moving forward scientific knowledge.

“In our case,” he says, “we have techniques developed here in Moncton that are being used in laboratories across Canada and the world leading to better patient care.”

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