Advancing global genetics in Canada’s multicultural epicentre

Nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto, WCRI’s Dr. Steven Narod and the Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit are leading the world in the identification of new cancer-causing genetic mutations. The team’s dual approach – linking world-leading population-based epidemiological datasets with lab-based biogenetic assays – has made it globally unique.

“Many cancers are hereditary, and the genetic mutations that cause cancer are often found in isolated groups,” says Dr. Mohammad Akbari. “But people are becoming less isolated, and many are migrating.”

Akbari is currently working to identify the gene linked to high rates of esophageal cancer in Turkmen.* His passion for molecular human genetics makes him a perfect match for Narod’s lab, in the epicentre of Canadian multiculturalism.

“Our lab space, equipment and location are hugely important to our productivity,” says Narod. “Without access to a functional, centrally-located lab, a great deal of the discoveries we’ve already made and are continuing to make would simply not be possible.”

With support for the lab and its equipment, and with funding for the team and the work itself, Narod’s team has the ability to identify unknown genetic mutations that increase cancer risk. Their work will ultimately allow them to predict how risky certain mutations are, and identify ways to combat that risk – or potentially prevent cancer altogether.

The team acquired the equipment that enables this work with support from Women’s College Hospital Foundation. Narod has also received generous, long-standing support from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

“We’re very fortunate to have this level of support from the community, because this type of work simply couldn’t happen without it,” says Narod. “This support ultimately will help us understand the genetic causes of more cancers, and identify ways to prevent these cancers and treat them with the best outcomes.”

Currently located within Women’s College Hospital, the lab will eventually be housed in the hospital’s new building, which is under construction and slated for completion in 2015.

* Turkmen originate from Turkmenistan (in the former Soviet Union) and also primarily populate Afghanistan, China, Iran and Pakistan.

Dr. Mohammad Akbari was born in Iran and immigrated to Canada in 2005. His international perspective and his training in chemistry, epidemiology, human genetics and bio-informatics have uniquely positioned him to advance cancer research as a scientist at WCRI. He is also an assistant professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.