Using ‘undercover’ molecular probes to detect breast cancer

A GlycoNet researcher has developed specialized molecules that will allow for more accurate and precise detection of breast cancer, by having the molecules pose as sugars.

“Breast cancer cells often express a protein called GLUT-5, which is responsible for bringing the sugar fructose into the cell. Normal breast cells don’t use fructose – breast cancer cells use fructose,” explains Dr. Frederick West, a professor in chemistry at the University of Alberta.

West has harnessed this difference between breast cancer cells and normal breast cells to develop a molecular probe that will pose as fructose.

Frederick West, photo courtesy of University of Alberta

“If you’re able to modify a molecule so that it can somehow report that it’s there, and have that molecule still be recognized as if it were fructose, then that molecule will accumulate selectively in cancer cells and not in normal cells.”

West has been successful in developing several analogues for fructose and has a molecule he is hoping to get into clinical trials in the near future. As these molecules accumulate in the breast cancer cells, they can then be detected using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning.

“If the tumour has taken in a lot of the molecule, then you can detect the tumour in the presence of the normal tissue,” he says.

West explains that this technology would improve upon current breast cancer detection methods in several ways.  On one hand, it would detect tumours in cases where it cannot be detected with current methods, leading to false negatives On the other, it could prevent false positives as this technology would not incorrectly identify inflammation in PET scans, which can happen with current technology.

“If that compound works as we expect it to, then it really adds another tool to the radio-oncologist’s set of methods to detect cancer that’s complementary to the existing methods, and will potentially allow for the earlier detection of cancer in Canadian patients,” West says.

West is hoping to expand with a clinical trial and potentially the commercialization of this technology. For now, he’s pleased with the support and collaboration of GlycoNet as he continues to develop this technology.

“GlycoNet offers a number of benefits and we’ve tapped into some of them,” he says. “It’s a community of scientists who bring together complementary skill sets and so I’ve already developed a number of important collaborations… that’s probably going to lead to some very exciting new directions.”

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