Donor opens door to disease prediction

For 10 years, David Wishart applied for funding for a research tool to help detect and prevent disease. Ten times he was refused. Then a generous donor stepped in.

Katie Willis - 22 January 2018

David Wishart

By identifying and cataloguing chemicals from the human body, biochemist David Wishart can predict and detect disease. A donor's gift is accelerating his research.

It's 2020. Julie walks out of her annual checkup with a clean bill of health and a spring in her step. The test results from last year that showed she'd developed early-stage colon cancer were quickly followed by treatment, and the results today show that she's officially cancer-free. That test didn't exist five years ago.

University of Alberta biochemist David Wishart's crystal ball is a metal box. But it will still help him predict the future. In 2005, Wishart knew that if he could figure out a way to predict diseases earlier - identify a malfunctioning pancreas in an individual with pre-diabetes, for example - people could avoid the disease altogether through a diet or lifestyle change. He also knew that being able to detect diseases like cancer earlier would have an enormous impact on patient outcomes and quality of life.

Connecting the Dots

  • The Cause: Donor Lorna Shaw lost her family to cancer and knows research is the only cure
  • The Gift: Unrestricted donation to research in disease prediction and detection
  • The Impact: Researcher purchases powerful equipment that leads to early detection and improved cure rates

This revolutionary approach to health care is called metabolomics, a technique that identifies and catalogues every chemical in the human body and looks for patterns in those chemicals that correspond to different illnesses.

At the time, metabolomics was still an emerging field. But Wishart had the track record, research staff and passion to make a major impact. He just needed one powerful piece of equipment: the QTRAP 5500 mass spectrometer.

Mass spectrometers analyze complex biological substances, such as blood and tissue, in order to identify their component parts. Ten times more sensitive than previous models, the QTRAP 5500 can process many samples at once, making it the most accurate and efficient tool on the market for understanding disease.

For 10 consecutive years, Wishart applied for external grant funding to purchase this necessary equipment. Ten times he was refused.

Without funding, he would have to narrow the scope of his research, in turn slowing the progress of disease prediction and detection.

Then he learned that a donor had decided to make a gift to his lab, The Metabolomics Innovation Centre. The gift was unrestricted, meaning there were no stipulations except for Wishart's lab to keep up the good work. He used the gift to purchase the QTRAP 5500, critical for moving his research program forward.

Lorna Shaw

Lorna Shaw lost her husband and two children to cancer in the span of a decade. To honour their legacy, she donated to research to support the study of disease prevention.

"This gift opened doors, many of which were closed and even threatened to shut us down," Wishart says. "This money breathed new life into our operations and our ability to do research."

The donor was Lorna Shaw, '48 BSc, '50 MSc. She had read about Wishart's work in UAlberta's alumni magazine, New Trail. Her love of science and research inspired her to support the metabolomics lab. "I felt that this is the kind of research that needs to be done," she says.

Shaw fell in love with science in the 1940s, when women were a minority in the field. She met and married a fellow scientist, Ridley Shaw, '50 MSc, and worked as a cancer researcher and later as a Grade 12 biology teacher in Medicine Hat, Alta.

While research is one of her great loves, it is also painfully linked to her personal life. Shaw, now 91, has survived her husband and their children, Greg and Carol. All three died of cancer between 2004 and 2015.

The scientist in her can accept what happened, Shaw says, but as a mother and a partner, it has been very difficult. She never thought she would outlive both her children.

To honour their legacy, Shaw chose to donate to research in disease prediction and detection. "I know from my experience working in research many years ago that it takes a long time for results to come to fruition," she says from her home in Victoria, B.C. "But I gave to research, not treatment, because that is where real, long-term change can occur."

One element of Wishart's work is close to Shaw's heart. A simple urine test developed in his lab can detect colon cancer much earlier than a colonoscopy, improving cure rates to 90 per cent from 50 per cent.

More than 25,000 Canadians are diagnosed with colon cancer each year; about 9,000 will die from it, says Wishart. "If we can detect it early, we could prevent those deaths, improve quality of life for many others and reduce health-care costs by about $2 billion annually. And that's one disease."

The health-care savings for diabetes, he adds, are three to four times higher.

This screening technology is already being used in private facilities the United States, and Wishart is working to bring it to Canada as the technology and equipment become more accessible and less expensive.

None of this would be possible without Shaw's generous gift.

And the gift has an impact far beyond UAlberta. The QTRAP 5500, now at home in Wishart's Metabolomics Innovation Centre, provides services to labs around the world. "Making data and ideas available for other scientists moves our whole field forward faster," he says.

"With this tool, we're helping patients and we're changing lives for the better. We're incredibly grateful for Lorna's support."