Understanding how viruses trigger cell-cell fusion, and how they could improve cancer treatment

Credit: Bruce Bottomley, Dalhousie University

An estimated 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetimes. (Source: Canadian Cancer Society)

CIHR Foundation Grant Recipient

Dr. Roy Duncan
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
Faculty of Medicine
Dalhousie University, Halifax

Dr. Duncan's Research

One of the primary challenges in cancer treatment is finding a way to deliver disease-fighting drugs to their intended target without harming healthy cells. Health researchers are working hard to develop innovative therapies to treat cancer without causing the serious side effects often associated with chemotherapy and radiation.

Dr. Roy Duncan is one of these researchers. In his work, he is harnessing a basic biological process, known as cell-cell fusion, to create treatments that hit the right target. Cell-cell fusion – two or more cells merging to become one – is essential for many normal processes in the body, such as fertilization and growth. But it also plays an important role in some diseases, such as cancer and viral infections.

Through his work, Dr. Duncan has dramatically increased our understanding of cell-cell fusion, shifting the direction of this entire field of research in the process. In 2000, his lab discovered a previously unknown group of molecules involved in cell-cell fusion, which he named fusion-associated small transmembrane (FAST) proteins. These proteins, which are found in certain types of viruses, known as reoviruses, can trigger cell-cell fusion.

Since that initial breakthrough, Dr. Duncan's team has made important discoveries about how FAST proteins work, and what role they play in how reoviruses cause disease. But their groundbreaking research has not only helped us understand reoviruses ‒ it has also opened the door to developing new cancer therapies that use cell-cell fusion to deliver cancer drugs to tumour cells.

Supporting Advances in Drug Delivery

With his Foundation Grant, Dr. Duncan and his team will continue to explore how FAST proteins work, and the role that they play in health and disease. In particular, they will continue to study the mechanics of how these viral proteins trigger cell-cell fusion. They will also harness the cell-fusing properties of FAST proteins to help get medications past cell membranes and deliver them to specific targets, such as cancer cells. They will also explore why FAST-based approaches seem to enhance the effectiveness of a new approach to cancer treatment that uses viruses to destroy tumours.

"With long-term stable support provided by this Foundation grant, a very talented team of researchers will be able to continue their exploration and exploitation of a remarkable family of viral membrane fusion proteins. This research program is a fantastic example of how continued CIHR funding of basic biomedical research leads to both knowledge generation and knowledge application. Investigating fundamental biological processes has allowed us to discover unexpected new avenues for delivering drugs across cell membranes, and to enhance the tumour-killing capabilities of certain viruses. I am excited to continue this research and training program with the support of CIHR." – Dr. Roy Duncan

About Dr. Duncan

Dr. Duncan completed his PhD at the University of Guelph and his postdoctoral work at the University of Calgary. Throughout his career, he has received funding from CIHR and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. In order to explore the possible therapeutic applications of FAST proteins, Dr. Duncan founded and served as CEO of Fusogenix Inc., which was later acquired by Innovascreen Inc. For his important contributions to the study of cell-cell fusion, Dr. Duncan received the Max Forman Senior Research Award in 2008 and was the recipient of a Dalhousie University Research Professorship in 2012.

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