People diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer have a five-year survival rate of more than 93%. However, one problem that has eluded health professionals has been identifying high-risk cancer patients among those already diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

GlycoNet network researcher Karla Williams has been using carbohydrates to shed more light on this issue. Williams, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), has used a biomarker to detect high-risk cancer in patients.

"Right now, with early-stage breast cancer, diagnoses cannot really tell us who needs aggressive treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation and who did not need it," said Williams, who received GlycoNet translational grant funding for this two-year project "Our research has identified a specific sugar that is only present in aggressive cancer cells. "

Williams goal has been to develop a blood test to use alongside current diagnoses to detect if these cancer cells were aggressive and likely to spread further.

"We are trying to clinically unmet need." This blood test would give information to the clinician who could then direct the treatment based on the test results and the pathology together, "she noted.

Williams said that a blood test to detect this sugar as a biomarker has several benefits including being less invasive than surgery and reducing the need for unnecessary chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

"In some cases, we will send people to expensive cancer treatment that they will not have this test. They will detect whether or not there have been elevated levels of the glycan on the breast tissue and if they do, the clinician can suggest a strict course of treatment, if the glycan is absent, the patient could have the lump removed, "said Williams.

GlycoNet funding is allowing Williams to collaborate with pathologist Dr. Peter Watson from the BC Cancer Agency, to gather tissue specimens and blood for analysis in her UBC lab.

"Specimens are expensive to obtain, so the GlycoNet funding puts people like myself and Dr. Watson together to work on a solution. It brings both the clinical and research side together which makes for a nice strong foundation to advance the research," she added.

Williams believes this blood test would provide improved information for all patients diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. She said that having more knowledge would allow the patient to confidently say they would not need treatments or that chemotherapy and radiation treatments would benefit them.

"When someone is told they have a lump in their breast, there is a lot of emotional stress and concern," says Williams. "Our hope with this research is that we can build a blood test which will give meaningful information to clinicians to provide the appropriate treatment for the patient."

Williams' project builds on results from a previous GlycoNet-funded project that she worked on alongside fellow investigators, Dr. Hon Leong, Dr. Lisa Willis and Dr. Mark Nitz. The project looked at the potential for carbohydrates as a biomarker to detect prostate cancer. An Alberta-based spin-off company, GlyCa BioSciences Inc., was created to translate and commercialize the technology.