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Samuel Aparicio, head of the BC Cancer Agency’s department of breast and molecular oncology, is the sole Canadian on the 10-person team that won the Grand Challenge Award from Cancer Research UK

A Canadian researcher is part of a team that has been awarded a major international prize to help them turn breast tumours into a three-dimensional virtual reality experience that they hope will lead to a better understanding of how cancer cells interact and, ultimately, better treatments.

Samuel Aparicio, head of the BC Cancer Agency's department of breast and molecular oncology, is the sole Canadian on the 10-person team that won the Grand Challenge Award from Cancer Research UK, a charity that describes the prize as "the most ambitious cancer research grants in the world." Nine international teams were shortlisted for the award and an advisory panel picked four winners, which were announced in London on Friday. Dr. Aparicio's team will receive up to £20-million (about $33-million).

"It's really super exciting for all of us," Dr. Aparicio said in an interview. "We're going to be collaborating on a scale that hasn't been possible before."

Together with the University of Cambridge's Greg Hannon and team members from the U.S., Britain and Switzerland, Dr. Aparicio will use technology to break down information from real-life tumours collected from patients on an incredibly detailed scale and render it into a three-dimensional representation. Researchers will be able to put on a pair of goggles and virtually walk around inside a breast tumour, Dr. Aparicio said, which will allow them to see the relationship between various cells in tumours and actually interact with them.

This will help researchers see and understand breast tumours in new ways and could help answer important questions, such as why tumour cells can become resistant to drugs, what role is played by immune cells found in tumours and how tumours grow over time. One of the goals, Dr. Aparicio said, is to be able to better predict how tumours will change over time and what treatments will be most effective in stopping certain cancer cells in their tracks.

"You can't interact with millions and millions of data points on a 2D screen," he said. "What we're doing here is on a scale I don't think anyone has attempted before."

Malcolm Moore, president of the BC Cancer Agency, said researchers now know there are so many different components in breast tumours. But there are still many mysteries about the relationships between those cells, why some escape treatment and how cancer is able to come back.

"If you look at a three-dimensional tumour, the cells in that tumour are not all the same," Dr. Moore said. "You have to understand the whole tumour, not just sections of it."

Ultimately, the team hopes the technology they develop can be used to quickly map hundreds – or more – tumours and enable anyone with the technology to do the same. The idea is that researchers from around the world would be able to jump into a breast tumour with a pair of virtual reality goggles and use it to further their work, Dr. Aparicio said.

The team is optimistic about where the research grant will take them. Their goals might be ambitious, but even if they fall short, Dr. Aparicio said they will have accomplished a great deal.

"I think if we can accomplish 10 per cent [of our goal], we will have come a long way," he said.

Dr. Moore said the scope and scale of the reward reflects how the research world has changed.

"We have seen this trend of going away from smaller awards for individual projects to larger awards," he said. "Research these days is so complicated. It's never … about one person any more. It's about teams."