Our primary research interests are focused around head and neck malignancies. These are a group of biologically similar tumors originating from tissue of the upper aerodigestive tract, including the lip, oral cavity (mouth), nasal passages, paranasal sinuses, oropharynx, and larynx. More than 4,300 Canadians will be diagnosed with this type of cancer this year and approximately 1,600 of them will die from it.
Currently, histopathological criteria are the gold standard for grading and classifying many tumor types. In recent years it has become clear that cancers with very similar morphologies may have drastically different underlying gene changes. Given that cancer is a disease driven by accumulated gene changes, it is imperative that we determine which of these changes are associated with specific clinical parameters. This will ultimately give us insight into mechanisms driving observed clinical behaviors (chemoresistance, metastasis, etc.) and provide us with effective biomarkers for guiding treatment strategies.
At the Garnis Lab, we are using molecular profiles of head and neck malignancies to better understand the gene changes involved in initiation and progression of this disease. We are looking into dysregulation of the genome and transcriptome (including non-coding RNAs) to develop molecular stratifications for what is presently treated as a homogeneous disease.
In addition to analyzing tumor tissues, we are investigating the utility of surface epithelial markers and blood-based biomarkers for managing disease. Surface epithelial markers may arise due to malignancy-associated changes (MACs) in normal tissues and may be useful for detecting disease when tumors arise in inaccessible locations, such as tonsillar crypts, which is common in the oropharynx. Regarding blood-based biomarkers, we are presently examining the oncogenic impacts of microRNAs that are secreted via extracellular vesicles (such as exosomes). These factors may not only have utility as biomarkers for early detection or disease recurrence; they may also be exploitable as therapeutic targets.