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“You have cancer.” Those three words will be heard by Albertans 1,600 times this year. But what if we knew why?

With more than 200 types of cancer, figuring out why some people develop cancer, and why others do not, is the most challenging question in cancer research today. But a long-term study is looking to change that.

"Over the past 3-4 decades, major advances have been made in treatments for many cancers, meaning that many people live longer now than they would have done in the past. However, we haven’t made as much headway in understanding why some people develop the disease in the first place. "

- Dr. Paula Robson, Scientific Director, Alberta’s Tomorrow Project

For the last five years, Alberta’s Tomorrow Project has been taking mobile units across the province, with the goal of collecting biological samples from 30,000 Albertans between 35 and 69, who have never had cancer. What seemed like a lofty goal has now been realized and Alberta has established a huge, high-quality data base. In the months and years ahead, researchers will be able to examine the science to evaluate the health behaviours of Albertans, giving clues into the differences between why some people who develop cancer and other chronic diseases while others don’t.

Since the project started eight years ago, it is already yielding some promising results. Samples from the Tomorrow Project are being used by Dr. John Lewis, who is looking for a better test for prostate cancer risk – the PSA test that is currently used can be affected by infection or other prostate conditions that aren’t actually associated with prostate cancer risk, meaning that it is not a good test for screening in the population. Dr. Lewis thinks he has identified a novel protein in the blood of men with prostate cancer that might be a better marker of risk than PSA. Now, Dr. Lewis is working to figure out if that protein occurs in all men, or just in men with prostate cancer. And that’s where the Tomorrow Project has been able to help. By comparing samples from around 1000 cancer free men from the Tomorrow Project with samples from men who had received a prostate cancer diagnosis, Dr. Lewis might just be able to find a better screening test for prostate cancer. That’s real progress thanks to you.

Samples from women in Alberta’s Tomorrow Project have also been compared with samples obtained by women with breast cancer. That work, done by Dr. Sambasivarao Damaraju at the Cross Cancer Institute, aimed to find out if there were genetic differences in women who had developed breast cancer and women who had not had a breast cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Damaraju’s lab did identify some differences, and now they’re working to explore the genetic information with other health and environmental information to see if they can create a risk prediction model for Albertan women. These types of prediction models can be used to identify women at higher risk of breast cancer, and may result in tailored screening or early intervention strategies that may increase survival and success of treatment.

None of these discoveries would have been made if not for another Alberta Cancer Foundation investment, the Alberta Cancer Research Biorepository. The provincial biobank stores biological samples from cancer patients, but also stores samples from the Tomorrow Project.

Because of that collaboration, researchers like Dr. Lewis and Dr. Damaraju are able to compare samples donated by people who haven’t had cancer with samples donated by cancer patients. Future plans are to put strategies in place to link Alberta’s Tomorrow Project much more closely with the Tumour Bank in a way that streamlines access for researchers.

Results of this research will help us better understand how to prevent cancers and other chronic diseases in the future.

“We will be able to compare the characteristics and genetic profiles of people who developed cancer against those who did not, “says Dr. Robson. “ This kind of research can be very powerful, and as our ability to conduct more and more complex laboratory analyses increases in the future, I anticipate that these samples will tell us stuff about cancer risk that we can’t even imagine right now.”

You have helped set the stage for accelerated discovery in Alberta. Because of your investments, researchers are developing new treatments that were unthinkable yesterday. Thank you.

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