Bre-Anne FifieldBre-Anne Fifield is a member of a team exploring the role of a protein in developing liver cancer; the project has received a $750,000 research grant.

Surprise discovery opens line of inquiry in liver cancer

University of Windsor researchers have been awarded $750,000 by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to determine how a protein changes cell biology, fat accumulation in the liver, and how this can lead to liver cancer.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, the most common liver condition in the developed world, is estimated to affect nearly one quarter of the population of Canada and the United States. It is a complex metabolic disease that can be linked with obesity and an unhealthy diet.

An important complication is hepatocellular carcinoma, says Bre-Anne Fifield, adjunct assistant professor in biomedical sciences and research associate in the lab of professor Lisa Porter, the principal investigator on the grant. The work also has two collaborators: kinesiology professor Matthew Krause and mathematics professor Abdulkadir Hussein.

“HCC is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide, with a five-year survival rate of only 20 per cent,” Dr. Fifield says. “And there are no effective treatments available for advanced stages of HCC.”

A serendipitous discovery she made revealed a protein, called Speedy, that is capable of enhancing proliferation of liver cells and promotes the development of liver disease with an increased susceptibility of progressing to carcinoma.

“The project will focus on determining how Speedy changes the cell biology and the fat that accumulates in the liver and it will determine how that can lead to the formation of liver cancer,” she says.

The protein’s role in liver cancer was a surprise finding almost 11 years ago, while Fifield was a graduate student studying breast cancer.

“We developed a new mouse model for studying breast cancer and over time, I was surprised to find that the older males didn’t seem healthy,” she recalls. “When I explored this further, I found that mice with high amounts of Speedy in the liver were developing HCC at significantly higher rates and these mice also had NAFLD.”

This finding has revealed important information about the role that Speedy plays in regulating liver cell biology.

“This is an exciting project, as results from this work could reveal new ways of detecting aggressive NAFLD early, and new avenues of treatment for this aggressive form of disease, potentially saving lives,” adds Dr. Porter.

The project benefited from a Seeds for Hope grant in 2015 funded by the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation which fuelled the research to get it off the ground. A WE-Spark Health Institute Incentive Grant was then awarded in 2022.

“Our community plays an important role in fueling these exciting discoveries” says Chris Houser, UWindsor interim vice-president of research and innovation. “Without donors, the grant support of the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation and WE-Spark’s grant program, we would not have been able to move these ideas forward or be competitive at the national level. Research takes time and investment and thankfully, we have an amazing community of donors, right here in Windsor-Essex.”