Medical genetics candidate at UBC and Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre

Meet Vanessa Porter

Mapping a deadly disease using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology.

Vanessa Porter is a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of medical genetics.

Cervical cancer remains one of the deadliest cancers among women around the world. Vanessa Porter, a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of medical genetics, is using a cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology to understand how cervical cancers evolve and how this knowledge can inform future treatments for individual patients.

What is the focus of your research?

When human papillomavirus (HPV) infects cells in the cervix, the virus can remain for years and may even integrate into the genome of the cervical host cells. This is thought to be an important step towards an infected cervical cell becoming cervical cancer. I’m using novel genome sequencing technology to study these regions of HPV integration and the changes they induce in the cancer genome so we can understand why they are important for the cancer’s growth.

Vanessa Porter using DNA sequencing technology to study the regions of HPV integration and the changes they induce in the cancer genome.

Why is your research important?

While there is an effective HPV vaccine, cervical cancer is still the fourth-deadliest cancer worldwide in females. A large proportion of deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. There is also a rising epidemic of HPV-positive head and neck cancers in males.

There needs to be more diversity in the types of genomic data we analyze, especially when the people most affected by the cancer belong to underrepresented populations. Most genomic studies use North American cohorts, but many of the cancers I study are from a Ugandan cohort. This is important to improve equity in medical and genomic research, especially in the case of virus-induced cancers that may have strain-specific consequences in the tumours.

“There needs to be more diversity in the types of genomic data we analyze, especially when the people most affected by the cancer belong to underrepresented populations.”

– Vanessa Porter

If your research is successful, what might the result look like?

The goal of my current project is to generate a catalogue of all the genomic structures that can result from HPV integration in cancers. I want to identify different patterns so we can understand and eventually predict what HPV integration regions do to both the HPV and the human genes that it affects. This could allow us to target specific treatments to individual patients.

How can your work accelerate translational medicine for the future?

My project is one of the first large-scale studies to use nanopore long-read sequencing across a wide number of cancer samples. This technology enables direct, real-time analysis of long DNA or RNA fragments.

With short-read DNA sequencing, we can only see the edges of where the HPV is integrated into the cancer genome. But with nanopore long-read technology, we have the ability to examine the region as a whole and see what alterations have occurred on the HPV and human genomes. We hope that some of these alterations may be targetable in cancer treatment.

One of the most cutting-edge benefits of nanopore sequencing is real-time results. In the future, it might be possible to do things like sequence a tumour during surgery which could improve the chances of successfully treating that patient’s cancer.

All of this could demonstrate the power of nanopore for studying cancers and how it can be applied to Personalized OncoGenomics. By comparing a cancer patient’s normal DNA with the DNA of their tumour, the goal is to learn which mutations contribute to the cancer growth and potentially develop targeted treatments.

Why did you choose UBC?

I was attracted to UBC’s medical genetics department to learn more about the fundamentals of human genetics in order to understand how these processes can cause cancer. The research environments at UBC and the Genome Sciences Centre provided me with the knowledge and support I needed to pursue the research questions that have captivated me throughout my education.

I was specifically drawn to the Genome Sciences Centre because of its world-class sequencing capabilities and established experts in cancer genomics, like my supervisor, Dr. Marco Marra, a UBC professor of medical genetics and Canada Research Chair in Genome Science.