Kingston researcher awarded for groundbreaking work in breast cancer monitoring

Irsa Wiginton, Mitacs Award Winner. Submitted photo.

A simple, routine blood test may soon be the choice of oncologists everywhere to monitor metastatic breast cancer, after groundbreaking work from Irsa Wiginton, a post-doctoral researcher at the Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute, heads to clinical trials.

Wiginton is on a mission to ease the burden facing breast cancer patients by giving oncologists an effective way to monitor tumours to identify the best, personalized treatment using the simple test, according to a media release.

Her work to launch a liquid biopsy specifically for metastatic breast cancer is now undergoing its first clinical trial and has earned Wiginton a prestigious award and $5,000 from Mitacs, a leading Canadian innovation organization that boosts economic growth and innovation by helping companies solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

In recognition of her efforts to advance the test through the company she co-founded, mDetect Inc., Wiginton — who serves as mDetect Business Development Officer — will be presented the Mitacs Global Impact Entrepreneur Award on Thursday, May 18, 2023, at a ceremony in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Right now, the only way to see whether patients are responding to treatment or not is through imaging tests (CT scans) which are done every couple of months,” said Wiginton. “Unfortunately, people with metastatic breast cancer don’t have a good prognosis. On average, they only have two years or less to live, so there’s no time to waste when it comes to determining their most effective course of treatment.”

According to the release, the blood test being developed by mDetect — which builds on work by company President and Founder Dr. Christopher Mueller — monitors specific epigenetic markers in tumour DNA that are shed into a patient’s bloodstream and uses next-generation sequencing to quantify changes in tumour volume. One tube of blood, drawn every one or two weeks, can accurately measure if a tumour is shrinking or continuing to grow, indicating whether or not the current treatment therapy is working.

The blood test works for all subtypes of breast cancer and all forms of therapy, including hormone therapy and chemotherapy, according to the release. Rather than waiting months for an imaging test, oncologists will know how patients are progressing within four to five days of their bloodwork and can change the treatment if necessary. Wiginton noted that the fast turnaround also means patients who are experiencing debilitating side effects from an ineffective treatment won’t suffer longer than necessary.

“In the late stages of a patient’s cancer journey, oncologists often struggle with what treatment to pick and know that most patients will not respond to a given therapy, making it difficult to select subsequent treatment options,” she explained. “We’re giving them a tool that allows them to make an informed decision that ultimately leads to a better outcome and a higher quality of life for patients.”

mDetect launched its first observational clinical study in April and is currently in the process of recruiting 150 metastatic breast cancer patients to participate through Kingston General Hospital and Ottawa General Hospital. Based on the outcome of the trial, the next step will be Health Canada and FDA approval, with the goal to be in the market within three years.

“A blood test is a very easy way to monitor cancer,” said Wiginton, adding that future plans include using the liquid biopsy to detect cancer relapse as well. “It integrates seamlessly into the patient’s current standard of care — just one extra tube with their current blood work — and they get the benefit of knowing whether or not their treatment is working sooner, before it’s too late.”

According to the release, Wiginton is one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“I wasn’t well versed in business development when I started this journey — I came in as a scientist and now thanks to the support of Mitacs, I have the skills required to be an entrepreneur as well,” she said.

“A successful innovation economy cannot exist without entrepreneurs. Startups drive innovation in Canada, they dream big and push boundaries, bringing research from ideation to commercialization,” added Mitacs CEO John Hepburn. “Mitacs is extremely proud to play a role in supporting small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs through our continued investment in talent, research, and development.  It is a pleasure to celebrate the incredible accomplishments and impact of our 2023 Mitacs Entrepreneur Award winners.”

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