Dr. Karla Williams is on a mission to change how cancer is diagnosed using glycomics

Leveraging her scientific knowledge and entrepreneurial mindset, Dr. Karla Williams is developing a blood test that could allow for early diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer.

by Ali Chou

Dr Karla Williams

As an Assistant Professor from the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of the Edmonton-based start-up GlyCa Biosciences Inc., Dr. Karla Williams is bridging science and business to improve how breast cancer is diagnosed. I recently spoke to Williams about what inspired her to put the power of her lab bench to the service of healthcare practitioners and patients. She hopes to develop a blood test that can predict tumor progression and determine an individual’s risk of cancer recurrence.

What are you currently working on?

I am building blood tests that can help doctors determine if early-stage breast cancer patients are at risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. The blood test uses a nanofluidic device which can detect the presence of a sugar in the blood stream. This test will help determine the proper course of treatment and will also allow medical professionals to better assess how closely patients have to be monitored in the future.

What concrete problem could this test solve?

If someone has an aggressive cancer, they need to be treated as quickly as possible to mitigate the risk of cancerous cells spreading to other parts of the body. Even if a cancer is caught early and treated, and after a patient has been in remission for years, cancer might recur. Current tests do not predict whether a cancer will spread or come back.

Standard preliminary clinical test for breast cancer are mammography and ultrasound. These tests use medical imaging to detect visible abnormality in breast tissues. However, many of the lesions detected are benign, or non-aggressive, and while some are aggressive they can be difficult to identify. Being able to identify aggressiveness within these very early stage cancers is important for determining a patient’s course of treatment. Our blood test will be complementary to imaging principles, as it detects certain sugar molecules from the body that indicate both an abnormality and the likelihood that these abnormal cells will spread to other parts of the body. Importantly, our test would identify patients who would benefit from aggressive therapies, such as chemotherapy, while sparing those with non-aggressive, indolent disease from the toxic side effects of aggressive therapies.

Walk us through what it looks like for a patient to get this test. When would a doctor recommend this be done?

A patient walks into the clinic and receives a mammogram in an X-ray room. The doctor then looks for an abnormality on the X-ray image. If the doctor sees an area that indicates a risk of breast cancer, the patient would get the blood test. Based on whether or not a specific sugar molecule is detected in the blood test, the doctor would be able to evaluate whether the abnormality that appeared on the X-ray is likely to be aggressive. If the result suggests that an aggressive tumor could develop, the patient would be sent for biopsy and could receive treatment as needed.

What inspired you to focus on breast cancer research and what motivates you to keep going?

Even during my undergraduate studies, I was fascinated by the complexity of biological processes in cancer. I wanted to understand how the human body works and why we are vulnerable to cancer. During my graduate training, I was motivated by the fact that scientific research can help save someone’s life. At the end of the day, research is not confined to the lab. It has real-world implications and benefits. The complexities of cancer biology made me want to pursue graduate studies; my desire to learn how my work could directly impact patients’ lives drove me to pursue post-graduate research. I am especially inspired by my mentor, Dr. Ann Chambers, who is an expert on breast cancer and cancer metastasis. Throughout my training, she reminded me to ask myself important questions like, “Why is this research important? Why should we care?” She continues to help me focus on the impact my work has on patients. I am also lucky to have breast cancer patient advocates involved in my research. These women inspire me through their drive and determination to make my work as impactful as possible. For me, the end goal is to help improve the lives of breast cancer patients.

I really enjoy addressing challenges using science and research. In a lab, you never know what’s going to happen! Results can be very different than what you expected when you started. Each new piece of information helps you push ahead so that down the line, patients can benefit from your work.

What are some of the challenges you still have to overcome?

Traditionally, when it comes to cancer, researchers look for changes to genomic materials (DNA, RNA) or protein mutations. There are also significant changes in the sugars when cells enter a cancerous state; characterizing and understanding the sugars found on cancer cells is becoming more and more important. The potential of glycomics research is gaining more recognition. We need to show the scientific community, and the public, how the field can help generate accurate and minimally invasive diagnostic tools, as well as better treatment for certain illnesses, including cancers.

What’s next?

At this stage, what intrigues us is not only this sugar as the indicator for tumor progression, but also the basic biological mechanism of metastasis potentially driven by this sugar. In the lab, we are working to find what makes these breast cancer cells more invasive when they display this sugar on the cell surface. Once we understand the underlying mechanism of cancer progression based on this sugar, we may be able to find ways to target it and this could lead to a new therapeutic for breast cancer.

You have chosen to focus your research on an illness that disproportionately affects women. You are also a woman in science, where diversity and inclusion remain concerns.

What are the benefits of working in a lab that is diverse and inclusive? How can it positively impact research?

Unfortunately, in the sciences there is often a lack of diversity – this is a problem, and each individual has a responsibility to not just address this but to actively act for change. Diversity in science is extremely important. Individuals with different life experiences bring diverse perspectives and I think that this promotes excellent research. For us to make significant strides towards solving difficult scientific problems, diverse approaches are needed. This is one area which can be significantly improved by having a team of people with different genders, race, identities and cultures. We really don’t want everyone to think the same way about the same problem—diversity helps stimulate new ideas and approaches.

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