Clinicopathologic and molecular characterization informs large-scale therapeutic screening of SWI/SNF-deficient gynecologic malignancies

Meticulous characterization to accelerate precision medicine for patients with aggressive gynecological cancers

Undifferentiated gynecologic malignancies are rare but aggressive cancers that develop in female reproductive organs, such as the uterus and ovaries. Today, no effective therapies exist for these cancers, and most patients diagnosed with them succumb within a year of diagnosis. To make matters worse, they’re often mistaken for other, less aggressive cancers, which complicates care for the treating team at a stage when accurate management decisions are crucial to offer treatment options that could give patient’s precious time with their loved ones.  

For Dr. Basile Tessier-Cloutier, a gynecologic pathologist and researcher at the McGill University Health Centre, this is unacceptable. That is why he will use a new Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network Clinician-Scientist Award to bring new hope to patients diagnosed with these cancers. 

“Undifferentiated gynecologic malignancies are a new type of cancer, in so far as we’ve only recently discovered that they exist as a distinct group, with a different microscopic appearance and molecular profile compared to other cancers that grow in the same organs,” explains Dr. Tessier-Cloutier. “This means that there is still a lot to learn about them if we want to improve outcomes for patients, which is imperative given they are so aggressive.” 

For Dr. Tessier-Cloutier, the first step to solving this problem is what he calls meticulous characterization. In other words, studying these cancers from every possible angle to better understand what makes them unique, identifying vulnerabilities and discovering new therapies to treat them. To get that done, though, he will have to start from the basics.  

“Scientists currently don’t have much to work with if they’re wanting to study these cancers,” he explains. “This project will change that by creating the largest resource of tumour tissue and clinical data from patients diagnosed with these cancers.” 

As he creates this resource, Dr. Tessier-Cloutier will develop new cellular models that are accurate reproductions of the disease and will enable researchers to study tumour biology without any risk for the patient. These models will help him and other MOHCCN scientists perform a wide range of experiments, such as tests to assess tumour growth and response to different drugs in a controlled environment. In parallel, Dr. Tessier-Cloutier will also perform in depth characterization of these tumors using DNA sequencing and other molecular tests and correlate it with clinical variable. 

Through this approach, Dr. Tessier-Cloutier hopes to deepen our understanding of the biology and outcomes of these diseases, which will allow him to move forward on two major goals: to establish improved guidelines to help physicians around the world improve diagnostic accuracy, and to find better ways to treat patients with these cancers. 

“This whole program really seeks to bring us into a new era of treatment for patients with these tumours,” explains Dr. Tessier-Cloutier. “The way we hope to get there really illustrates the whole story about precision medicine:  it is only through the meticulous characterization of an entity that we can achieve this goal.” 

The $225,000 award is for three years and will be matched by the McGill University Health Centre to total $450,000.