$750,000 grant awarded to UWindsor researchers to pursue “surprise” cancer discovery

WINDSOR, ON, March 2, 2023 - - University of Windsor researchers have been awarded $750,000 by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to determine how a protein changes cell biology, fat accumulation in the liver, and how this can lead to liver cancer.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), the most common liver condition in the

developed world, is estimated to affect nearly one quarter of the US and Canada. It is a complex metabolic disease that can be linked with obesity and an unhealthy diet.

“One important complication of NAFLD is Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC)” says Dr. Bre-Anne Fifield, adjunct assistant professor in biomedical sciences at the University of Windsor and WE-SPARK member. “HCC is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide, with a 5-year survival rate of only 20%. And there are no effective treatments available for advanced stages of HCC.”

A serendipitous discovery made by Dr. Fifield revealed a protein, called Speedy, that is capable of enhancing proliferation of liver cells and promotes the development of NAFLD with an increased susceptibility of progressing to HCC. “The project will focus on determining how Speedy changes the cell biology and the fat that accumulates in the liver and it will determine how that can lead to the formation of liver cancer.”

It was a surprise finding almost 11 years ago while Fifield was a graduate student studying breast cancer. “We developed a new mouse model for studying breast cancer, and over time, I was surprised to find that the older males didn’t seem healthy. When I explored this further, I found that mice with high amounts of Speedy in the liver were developing HCC at significantly higher rates and these mice also had NAFLD”. This finding has revealed important information about the role that Speedy plays in regulating liver cell biology. 

“This is an exciting project, as results from this work could reveal new ways of detecting aggressive NAFLD early, and new avenues of treatment for this aggressive form of disease, potentially saving lives.”

Dr. Fifield is the research associate on the project, with Dr. Lisa Porter, WE-SPARK Health Institute executive director and distinguished professor in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Windsor as principal investigator, and two collaborators Dr. Matthew Krause Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Dr. Abdulkadir Hussein Professor in the Department of Mathematics.

The project benefited from a Seeds for Hope grant in 2015 funded by the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation which fueled the research to get it off the ground. A WE-SPARK Health Institute Incentive Grant was then awarded in 2022. “Our community plays an important role in fueling these exciting discoveries” said Porter. “Without donors, the grant support of the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation and WE-SPARK’s grant program, we would not have been able to move these ideas forward or be competitive at the national level. Research takes time and investment and thankfully, we have an amazing community of donors, right here in Windsor/Essex.

“We cannot be more grateful that our team has been successful. We’re proud of the caliber of trainees and collaborators on this project, their determination to stay on course, and our local community supporters who have made this potentially game-changing research possible.”

“This has been such a rewarding project to be part of and see it develop and grow from an unexpected discovery. The team of undergraduate students I have worked with over the years on this project have been instrumental in the success of this research program” added Fifield.


Media Contact:

Cathy Mombourquette


About WE-SPARK Health Institute

WE-SPARK Health Institute is a partnership supported by Erie Shores HealthCare, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, St. Clair College, the University of Windsor and Windsor Regional Hospital designed to take healthcare to the next level through research.

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