McGill and MCH discovery of cancer spread mechanism picked as “Discovery of the Year”

Québec Science readers select MUHC researcher Dr. Janusz Rak’s latest breakthrough
out of 10 top discoveries

Readers of Québec Science magazine have selected a recent cancer breakthrough by Dr. Janusz Rak and his team as “Discovery of the Year 2008”.

Dr. Rak, a professor in pediatric oncology at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and a researcher at the Research Institute of the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the MUHC, identified a fundamental mechanism by which tumour cells spread. Janusz Rak and his colleagues, Dr. Khalid Al-Nedawi and Brian Meehan, found that cancer cells communicate with their more healthy counterparts by releasing vesicles. These bubble-like structures – called oncosomes – contain cancer-causing (oncogenic) proteins that can merge into healthy cells and “contaminate” them. These findings could change our view on how cancerous tissues work and lead to major clinical innovations.

This breakthrough was one of 10 chosen by Québec Science as the top discoveries of 2008. The prestigious ranking was published in the magazine’s February issue. Readers were then asked to vote for one top discovery. Their choice was announced today at an event honouring Dr. Rak and his team held at The Montreal Children’s Hospital.

“All the research projects nominated this year – and a great many that were not – are gems in their own right. This honour is gratifying, but also humbling and motivating for my team,” Dr. Janusz Rak said. “Many people can relate to cancer and I think people respond favourably to projects that aim at making a meaningful difference that affects them, especially through science.”

The presence of oncosomes in the blood of cancer patients could become a clinical marker, meaning doctors could screen for a tumour's molecular characteristics instead of having to perform invasive surgery or biopsy. Currently, in the case of brain cancer, for example, this precise assessment cannot be performed without removing the tumour and therefore opening a patient's skull. However, the analysis of oncosomes would potentially only require taking a small sample of blood or cerebrospinal fluid.

“Dr. Rak is a brilliant researcher. He has dedicated his life to the better understanding of how cancer cells communicate, which is advancing our understanding of the control of tumour growth," said Dr. Harvey Guyda, Associate Executive Director of The Montreal
Children's Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre. “Thanks to dedicated researchers like Dr. Rak, the Research Institute of the MUHC and McGill University continue to be leaders in scientific discoveries.”

 “ This competition becomes more popular each year, ” said Raymond Lemieux, Editor of Québec Science magazine. “Participants don’t just simply vote but have to explain the reason behind their selection. That shows us that the public is not indifferent to the progress of fundamental research and, in fact, puts much hope in that progress. ”

Scientists from McGill University, the Research Institute of the MUHC and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute were featured prominently in Québec Science's Top Ten Discoveries of 2008 as four McGill research teams were recognized in this year’s ranking. Jonathan O'Neil, PhD candidate, and professor Don Francis, from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, were selected for their discovery of Earth's oldest rocks, found in the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt, located in Northern Quebec. Dr. Alain Brunet, clinical psychologist at the Douglas and associate professor of psychiatry, also made the top 10 for his findings relating to the use of propranolol in the treatment of people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, the magazine recognized the work of Dr. Morag Park, scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Cancer Research, whose team identified how the gene profile of cancer cells’ microenvironment can be used to determine whether the cells will prosper or fade.

“McGill University and its world-class researchers continue a legacy of making seminal contributions to the body of human knowledge,” said Denis Thérien, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) at McGill.  “We are enormously proud of our four research teams whose discoveries were cited in the Top Ten Discoveries of the Year. And we applaud Québec Science for its dedication to informing the public about the enormous value of good research.”

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Julie Fortier
Associate Director, Media Relations
McGill University

Isabelle Kling
Communications Coordinator (Research)
MUHC Public Relations and Communications

514 843-1560