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Publications of the Week

Proteomic Analysis of Archival Breast Cancer Clinical Specimens Identifies Biological Subtypes with Distinct Survival Outcomes

By March 8, 2022No Comments

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This week we profile a recent publication in Nature Communications from the lab of
Dr. Gregg Morin (pictured, center) at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre and UBC.

Can you provide a brief overview of your lab’s current research focus?

Our group uses an instrument technology called mass spectrometry to measure the abundance levels of proteins in cancer cells. This information allows us and our clinician scientist and research lab collaborators to identify proteins that are aberrantly expressed in cancers. Aberrant proteins in cancers could be diagnostic or prognostic biomarkers in clinical assays, as candidates for new drug development, or illuminate the cellular level events that lead to cancers. We do these investigations across many cancer types for many collaborators at BC Cancer and other research groups within and beyond BC. 

What is the significance of the findings in this publication?

In the Asleh et al. Nature Communications paper ( we worked with Drs. Torsten Nielsen (VGH) and Stephen Chia (BC Cancer), a breast cancer pathologist and oncologist, respectively, to identify aberrantly expressed proteins in breast tumour clinical samples that have been archived since the mid 1980s. By analyzing samples with extended outcome data we were able to identify groups of proteins whose expression defined patient sub-groups that had poor and good long term survival outcomes. In particular, in triple negative breast cancers, a sub-type with generally poor prognosis, our data show that these could be further divided into groups with poor survival and, importantly, a group with highly favourable survival. This good prognosis group had an activated immune response signature and suggests these patients may benefit from a treatment regimen that avoids chemotherapy and its damaging side effects. 

On the technical side, this study demonstrated our new method can effectively and comprehensively measure global protein levels in very minimal amounts of chemically preserved patient samples. With this technology we can now survey the large numbers of archived patient tumour samples in many other cancer types to identify patient outcome sub-groups and associated diagnostic or prognostic biomarkers or new drug development candidates. 

What are the next steps for this research?

Based on this project we were awarded a Canadian Cancer Society grant to confirm and refine the good prognosis triple negative breast cancer sub-group signature in a larger set of BC Cancer patient samples, and validate this signature using a refined mass spectrometry assay in two large European clinical trials for a commonly used chemotherapy drug in triple negative breast cancers. The goal is to develop an assay to identify patients likely to not benefit from this aggressive chemotherapy regimen and redirect them to less pernicious and more effective treatment paths. 

If you’d like to mention your funding sources, please list them.

We acknowledge funding support from the Canadian Cancer Society, the BC Cancer Foundation, the OMG (Ovarian Mining Group) of BC, and the individual public donors to these groups, and we thank all the cancer patients for their participation in research. We also acknowledge this work was performed within the unceded land of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Squamish, Musqueam, Stó:lō, Tsleil-Waututh, and Stz’uminus Nations.


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