Breaking down the wall of prostate cancer metastasis

Meet Lian Willetts, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. John Lewis Laboratory, Department of Oncology, University of Alberta and one of the standout stories of the recent Falling Walls 2015 conference. We had the pleasure of seeing her present her work twice during our trip to Berlin earlier this month, firstly during the fantastic Falling Walls Lab competition and then again as one of the three winners of Lab presenting her work at the main conference.

The Lab format offers excellent young academics and professionals the opportunity to present their outstanding ideas, research projects and initiatives. Each participant is asked to present his/her work in 3 minutes, which Lian managed in a clear, confident, concise manner.

falling walls 2015

There is no better person to describe her work than Lian herself, so we reached out to get an overview of the groundbreaking research she is making great strides with.

Over a third of newly diagnosed cancer in North America will be prostate cancer, and 250,000 men and their families will receive this devastating new this year alone. Men do not die from cancer that stays in the prostate, they die when cancer cells spread from prostate to bones and lymph nodes. This deadliest aspect of cancer is called metastasis and this is true for many other types of aggressive cancer. Our current diagnostics for prostate cancer do not predict metastasis and our current treatments do not prevent metastasis. Without accurate and predicative diagnostics and preventative treatment, prostate cancer is still claiming 10% of all cancer-related death in men; and leaving a majority of diagnosed patients living with significantly reduced quality of life as results of aggressive treatments.

In order for cancer cells to metastasize, they have to be able to move. Our lab at the University of Alberta, has pioneered an imaging platform capable of capturing every movement of a spreading cancer cell. Using this platform, we discovered a panel of cell derived signals that indicate the switch in cancer cells, from growing to metastasizing, and we call them motility indicators. Take one of the indicators as an example, it is switched on in patients whose cancer spread 10 years earlier than patients who had it switch off according to their prostate biopsy.

Keeping the invasiveness of current diagnostics and patients’ quality of life in mind, our team developed a liquid biopsy platform to accurately analyze the level of these motility indicators using a single drop of blood. Applying this technology in a small cohort of patents we are able to accurately predict which patients’ cancer is metastatic, and whose cancer would remained non-invasive and stay in the prostate. Currently we are running clinical trials in collaboration with multiple Prostate Cancer centers around the world to further validate our technology. When validated we will have a non-invasive blood test to predict if your prostate cancer will metastasize. Many men get a diagnosis of prostate cancer that never would have killed them, but they still opt for radiation or surgery, which can severely compromise their quality of life. The biggest benefit of this test will be in determining which patients can feel comfortable making the decision to forgo aggressive treatment and just monitor their disease to live with it over the long term.

Lian also kindly shared her views on the importance of breaking out of the lab and attending events such as this, and also some insights on how she went about preparing for her talk.

In our lab at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, I get to discover new things pretty much every day. I am surrounded by great scientists who help and challenge me on a daily basis. We are a very diverse group with projects and experience ranging from discovery research to clinical application. On a day-to-day basis, it is easy to focus on only the project you are working on and forget about the big picture of the lab. Participating in FWlab 2015 helped me to tie all the projects in my lab together. To share the breakthrough and the impact of our work to people with a wide variety of backgrounds, in less than 3 minutes, is an extremely challenging task for me. In the process of preparing for the selection process of regional competition, and in the end for the finale in Berlin, I practiced in front of anybody who cared to listen. This process helped me in refining my speech and organizing my thoughts. It was a great learning experience for better communication in the field of medical science research.

The best award I got for this year’s FWLab competition is to be part of the Falling Walls conference on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov.9th. All speakers, regardless of their area of expertise, which ranged from aerospace and medical science to social and environmental issues, have been breaking down some of the toughest walls that humanity has been facing around the world. I am truly humbled and also very excited to be part of this prestigious, thought-provoking, and cutting edge experience in Berlin. The Falling Walls Foundation and A.T.Kearney had done a tremendous job organizing the event. I am truly grateful for the experience. I would recommend the FWLab experience to all researchers. It is a character building experience as well as a very effective training program for anyone who wants to learn how to communicate well.

Make sure you take a look the official website of The Alberta Prostate Cancer Research Initiative:

The first call for applications has already started for a new round of international FW Lab in 2016:

The first will take place in Moscow on 8 December, the second in Hong Kong on 16 February 2016 with many more to follow. You can also sign up for the Lab Newsletter here: