researcher wins award for developing world’s first non-invasive blood screening test for early detection of eye cancer | Health


Every day, Prisca Bustamante wakes up appreciating the beauty of the world she sees around her. That’s a big part of why she’s made it her mission to make sure that no one goes unnecessarily blind to eye cancer – a disease that often goes undiagnosed until after. or too late – by developing the world’s first blood test for early detection of an eye tumor.

This groundbreaking work earned Bustamante the prestigious Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation – PhD, awarded by Mitacs, a national government-funded innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from institutions. academics. The award was presented in a hybrid ceremony on November 23, held both online and in person at the National Arts Center in Ottawa.

Bustamante – a doctoral researcher working at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center under the supervision of Dr. Julia Burnier of the Department of Oncology and Pathology at McGill University – is credited with developing the very first liquid biopsy for uveal melanoma, the most common intraocular tumor in adults. Although rare, the disease can be fatal in a small percentage of Canadians who develop it each year due to a lack of early detection methods.

“If we can learn to screen patients with early stages of eye cancer, they will be able to benefit from treatment options earlier, which will increase their chances of survival,” said Bustamante, who is dedicated to cancer research. the eye because she firmly believes that people deserve a chance to preserve their sight. “We can say it’s rare, but 10 eye cancer patients belong to 10 families who will also be affected by the outcome of the disease,” she said.

The challenge with current diagnostic methods is that they require highly trained personnel to take pictures inside the eye using specialized equipment. This often makes diagnosis difficult and tumors will not necessarily be detected until they are at an advanced stage. The other option is to remove a piece of the tumor for a biopsy, which is an invasive surgery that involves risks to the eye. Patients also face the possibility of losing an eye when eye cancer goes untreated.

Bustamante’s revolutionary diagnostic approach uses simple, routine blood tests. What’s new is that she has successfully identified small fragments of DNA in the blood, called liquid biopsy-based biomarkers, which accurately convey information about the presence and malignancy of an eye tumor. at its earliest stage. She is applying a technology called digital droplet PCR to develop an early detection system for eye cancer and, after proving her approach in test box cultures and animal models, she is currently conducting a clinical study at McGill Academic. Eye Center involving both eye cancer patients as well as patients with benign eye damage.

“We are looking for genetic material in the blood that signals a specific mutation,” Bustamante explained. “Our test can tell us if these fragments are there, as well as how many are present. What’s unique is that the test can tell us a number that correlates with the size and severity of the cancer, allowing patients to be regularly monitored using simple blood tests – similar to monitoring PSA levels to treat prostate cancer – so treatment can start as soon as it’s needed, ”she said.

Bustamante’s research is expected to have a major impact on patients with eye cancer, ultimately helping to save lives and maintain sight through the development of an easily accessible screening test that can be deployed in ophthalmology clinics. She has presented her work at several major global conferences in the United States, Portugal and Germany, and sees the training offered by Mitacs as a valuable asset to help her pursue her research career.

“As part of my doctoral studies, I am learning molecular biology and pathology, but the Mitacs training gives me the opportunity to acquire important skills like time management and strong communication which I also need. to run my project successfully, ”said Bustamante, who completed her masters in Mexico and began her Mitacs-funded research in 2019 in Dr. Burnier’s lab.

The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation – Ph.D. is awarded to a Mitacs intern who has achieved a significant achievement in research and development innovation during their Mitacs-funded research.

Bustamante is one of eight Mitacs Award winners nationwide, chosen from thousands of researchers who participate in Mitacs programs each year. The remaining seven recipients were recognized for their exceptional innovation, commercialization or exceptional leadership in other areas of research.

“If we can learn to screen patients in the early stages of eye cancer, they will be able to benefit from treatment options earlier, increasing their chances of survival,” Bustamante said.

Congratulating the winners, Mitacs CEO John Hepburn highlighted the importance of providing Canadian innovators with experiential skills development opportunities through a strategic partnership between industry, government and academia.

“Collaborative innovation is a proven and productive approach to research that ultimately helps deploy the best talent in the Canadian economy,” said Hepburn, noting that Mitacs is honored to play a role in the advancement of significant research in Canada. “Whether our researchers develop groundbreaking ideas by tapping into our country’s resources or through international collaboration, their groundbreaking work benefits all Canadians – and it is this talent that shapes the future of innovation.

Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec, as well as the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Alberta, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and -Labrador, Government of Nova Scotia, Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, Government of Saskatchewan and Government of Yukon.

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