Dr. Zhaolin Xu
Banking on research:
Dalhousie's pathologist and professor Dr. Zhaolin Xu is the driving force behind what is now Canada's largest and most comprehensive lung cancer tissue bank, housed at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
"We have amassed more than 900 lung cancer patients' tissue samples and related health data in our tumour bank," says Dr. Xu, noting that he started the bank on a small scale in 2005 with funding from the Dalhousie Cancer Research Program (now part of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute) and others. "In addition to each patient's fresh-frozen and paraffin-embedded tunour tissue, we have banked samples of their healthy lung tissue, blood, plasma and DNA."
Each of the samples is thoroughly analyzed before it is banked. For example, cancerous tissues undergo histology evaluation, immunohistochemistry, molecular profiling and immune checkpoint analysis.
"we are diagnosing the patients' cancers at the same time as we're gathering the data about them," Dr. Xu says. "The analytical studies are extremely important because you can't always tell the different kinds of lung cancer apart - even when you examine them under a high-powered microscope. You need to know what's happening on a molecular level to know how to diagnose and treat it."
In addition to DNA, blood plasma and tissue samples, Dr. Xu and his assistants collect and input information about the patients' personal and family health histories, their cancer treatment, response to treatment, and long-term outcomes. All of the information is de-identified to protect patients' privacy and catalogued so cancer investigators can access the samples and database for specific research purposes.
"Because the samples are linked to clinical data, researchers gain a wealth of knowledge about how different sub-types of cancer behave and respond to treatment," he says. "They can also use the tissue samples to create pre-clinical models of real patients' cancers and use these to test drugs to identify the most effective treatment for that cancer. We're moving into the realm of personalized precision medicine."
Some of the proceeds of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's 2017-18 Molly Appeal will support a tumour bank manager, who will oversee the expansion of the tumour bank to encompass more kinds of cancer (including pancreas, breast, colon and genitourinary cancers) and facilitate researchers' access to the resource.