Dr. Wenda Greer
Genetic and molecular profiling:
Dr. Wenda Greer has been searching for disease-causing genetic mutations in Atlantic Canadian families for nearly 30 years, isolating and identifying such important mutations as the ones that cause Niemann-Pick and Bylers disease.
Now, as director of the DNA Diagnostic Laboratory at the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), Dr. Greer oversees the genetic and molecular analysis of lung cancer tissues from patients across the Atlantic region, as well as samples from patients with sarcoma, melanoma, leukemia, lymphoma and breast and colon cancers.
"we started out in 1990 offering genetic testing for a broad spectrum of blood malignancies. More recently, in collaboration with the Atlantic Canada Molecular Oncology Centre, we became the first centre in Canada to offer genetic profiling for lung cancer patients," notes Dr. Greer, a professor in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie Medical School. "Now we've expanded our operations to analyze tissues from patients with all the cancers that have known, clinically relevant mutations... in other words, we're looking for those mutations that have treatments to match."
As Dr. Greer explains, new generation cancer therapies are targeted to specific genetic mutations, designed to block the cancer-causing effect of the mutation.
"Genes produce proteins," she explains. "When they are mutated, they produce the wrong proteins. In the case of cancer, they tend to produce proteins that code for uncontrolled growth. Targeted therapies block these proteins, effectively stopping the cancer process."
In terms of lung cancer, Dr. Greer and the team at NSHA analyze 800 samples per year, searching for 15 known mutations in lung cancer. There are already approved treatments for two of these mutations, with several more in the drug-development pipeline.
New technologies have picked up the pace of gene discovery exponentially, according to Dr. Greer.
"When we discovered the gene for Niemann Pick 20 years ago, we had to sift through 30,000 genes, looking for markers one at a time," she says. "equipment purchased through the 2017-18 Molly Appeal allows researchers to analyze 800 individual cells at a time. This will speed up the discovery of genetic mutations and other mechanisms that lead to cancer, while pointing the way to new treatments, targeted to the specific features of an individual's cancer."