Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Medical discovery of a lifetime

Doctors find success at Harvard, but happy to return to Winnipeg

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There were times when Winnipeg physicians Shantanu and Versha Banerji felt as if they just wanted to come home.

Those frantic, frugal times in Boston during their joint Harvard University and CancerCare Manitoba research fellowships. Those late-fall times in 2007, perhaps, when the Red Sox were on their way to a World Series and the young couple raced to pick up their young daughter at the daycare near Fenway Park. Running against the baseball traffic, hoping they'd get to the daycare before they had to pay a late pick-up penalty.

Or maybe it was the time when all three of them were sick or in need of some help, and either his mother, Paula, or hers, Shashi, would literally come flying in to the rescue.

But, then, we all have those bad days when we wish we were somewhere else. Few of us, though, have the kind of good day -- great day -- that was waiting around the corner for Shantanu.

In the fall of 2010, three years into their four years away from home, Shantanu hit what amounts to a cancer-research home run.

He found a breast cancer "fusion gene" -- a mutation that involves two normal genes breaking apart and joining as one. It's a discovery that has already prompted further research that could lead to targeted treatment for a type of breast cancer that has proven difficult to treat.

It's the kind of find that could be -- as his mother would recall him suggesting -- the 33-year-old's research discovery of a lifetime.

It's a discovery momentous enough that the Shaftesbury High School and University of Manitoba medical school grad is the lead author of a peer-reviewed paper that was published Wednesday in the online version of the prestigious science journal Nature. It's scheduled to be included in the magazine today.

So it was that this week, at an office near a lab at CancerCare Manitoba, Shantanu and Versha sat talking about how it happened.

"You were asking about the eureka moment," the soft-spoken, stylishly attired Shantanu reminded me near the end of our interview.

Actually, there was a series of eureka moments.

But for Shantanu it was the first one that was the most memorable.

It happened on Remembrance Day 2010, when he and his colleagues were in what amounted to a horse race with five other research groups across the United States and in the United Kingdom -- all of whom were on the same track and looking for the same elusive finish line.

"I remember I was one of the only people at work that day," Shantanu said of that November day. "I just had to be at work because there was a lot of pressure to analyze the data."

He recalls staring at the computer, "And seeing this thing and thinking, 'Probably nothing.' And then looking at it some more. And looking at it some more. And looking at it some more. And then realizing -- 'This is interesting.' "

He texted Versha, who was working on her own oncology research in hematology. She still remembers the bottom line from that brief text exchange: "I think there's a fusion."

Shantanu quickly emailed his supervisor, Dr. Matthew Meyerson.

"You know there's something really interesting here," Shantanu recalled informing Meyerson. "So he wrote back and saw it... and confirmed it was present."

That was the second eureka moment.

Others would follow, just as other collaborators would get involved. It was a year where the final eureka moment was a drug experiment that appeared to hold promise for treatment.

And now they're back in Winnipeg. Why?

Well, since their return to Winnipeg last year, Shantanu and Versha have received more than $400,000 in institutional support from the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation. That's helping them establish a lab and have the time to carry on research in their respective specialties while also allowing them to continue to treat patients.

But, there's another, more personal reason why they returned.

As it happened, it was the promise of Winnipeg being a good place to raise children that prompted Shantanu's father, Ashish, to choose a mechanical engineering job in Winnipeg and move here in 1989. And it is the promise of Shantanu's and Versha's own three children being close to their grandparents that has made coming home feel so right for all of them. Even if Shantanu's parents now live in Brandon.

Hey, driving from Brandon is still closer than flying all the way to Boston and a lot less frantic than Fenway on game day. So, for the time being at least, Shantanu and Versha are back home where they wanted to be.

Safe at home with that career home run.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Dissecting

a cancer

breakthrough

SEQUENCE analysis of mutations and translocations across breast cancer subtypes is the title of the peer-reviewed paper in Nature that describes Shantanu Banerji's discovery.

 

-- What was discovered:

While working with his Harvard University-based adviser and the latest in genome technology, Winnipeg physician Shantanu Banerji discovered a mutation of two normal genes that first broke apart, and then rejoined to create a "breast cancer fusion gene." The study -- which included a team of specialized researchers from Harvard, MIT's Broad Institute and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genomica -- went on to locate the same cancer-causing fusion gene in other breast samples and find a drug that appeared to inhibit the mutant gene combination.

 

-- Who it may help:

This fusion gene is found in some breast cancer patients with what is known as "triple-negative" breast cancer, one of the more aggressive forms of the disease, and one of the most difficult to treat because it is unresponsive to commonly used anti-hormone or protein-based cancer treatments. Between 10 and 20 per cent of breast cancer patients are diagnosed as triple-negative.

 

-- How the discovery could help:

Doctors can target the newly discovered fusion gene, and with further study, specialized therapies can be developed to turn the gene off. Eventually, that could allow physicians to select targeted, less toxic treatments, based on a patient's genetic profile.

 

-- source: Cancer Care Manitoba

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2012 A4

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