The NRC H.L. Holmes Award supports the development of technology to target and treat basal-like breast cancer

- Toronto, Ontario

Photo of Dr. Khalid Al-Zahrani

The 2021 H.L. Holmes Award was presented to Dr. Khalid Al-Zahrani for his novel advancements in breast cancer research. In developing a never-before-seen method, he is able to screen for specific cancer driving genes and has validated his research with promising results.

Over two years, the $180,000 award will support Dr. Al-Zahrani in the development of a gene system to identify the cause of basal-like breast cancer (BLBC). As BLBC disproportionally affects younger, premenopausal women and has a relatively poor clinical prognosis, his research will expand our knowledge of this aggressive cancer subtype which could greatly improve existing treatment methods.

Dr. Al-Zahrani will continue to work with Mount Sinai's Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto where he has been a post-doctoral research fellow since 2019 in the labs of both Dr. Jeffrey Wrana, an internationally recognized cancer and cell signaling expert, and Dr. Daniel Schramek, a world-renowned expert in genetic models of cancer. Dr. Al-Zahrani completed his Ph.D. (Philosophy, Cellular and Molecular Medicine) and B.Sc. (Specialization in Biochemistry) at the University of Ottawa and has published over a dozen articles in scientific and medical journals. As a Canadian with roots in Scotland and Saudi Arabia, Dr. Al-Zahrani is excited to develop new medicine that will help people worldwide.

Developing KOALA – a methodology for rapid screening cancer-causing DNA

Already, Dr. Al-Zahrani is exploring the uncharted field of BLBC copy number alterations with the development of a novel in vivo CRISPR technology. BLBC copy number alterations are parts of the DNA that are gained or lost that cause tumors to develop from normal cells, and in vivo refers to experiments in whole, living organisms. Using the CRISPR system, researchers can edit genes by activating or deactivating specific parts of genetic code, which allows for precise manipulation of DNA. Dr. Al-Zahrani is a pioneer in the field of BLBC genetics as he aims to understand the underlying mechanisms that drive cancer cells. His findings may uncover new approaches in the way we provide treatment.  

Over two years, Dr. Al-Zahrani generated 14 different gene targeting systems in hopes of finding an all-in-one solution to target and screen specific cancer cells. He developed a technology termed KOALA (Knock-Out and Activation Linked Assay) which, when paired with CRISPR, can pick out certain parts of genetic code and trigger precise activation or deactivation. Overcoming numerous roadblocks, he finally achieved a system sufficient for use in mouse specimens. His method will allow for screening of specific BLBC genes and may ultimately identify parts of genetic code that trigger tumor growth. Importantly, KOALA allows for the rapid screening of thousands of cancer-causing genes in a single experiment, whereas conventional techniques screen a single potential cancer-causing gene at a time. The efficiency of his system is validated by discovering several new potential targets for treating BLBC. This is a pivotal step in understanding breast cancer as it greatly improves upon existing methodologies by saving both time and money in the identification of important cancer-driving genes. In combination with conventional tumor-suppressing gene therapy, identification of specific cancer-causing genes allows for highly targeted therapeutic approaches.

While mouse models are suitable for initial experiments, Dr. Al-Zahrani will carefully evaluate further findings in human patient samples. His innovative progress has the potential to uncover new effective cancer treatments and improve the clinical prognosis of basal-like breast cancer.

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