Chordoma Foundation

CF seed grant leverages developmental biology breakthrough

Recently, Dr. Cheryle Séguin, a musculoskeletal researcher at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, who studies spinal disc development, made a scientific breakthrough that unintentionally provided the missing link researchers needed to study the genesis of chordoma. To help take advantage of the opportunity created by this breakthrough, the Chordoma Foundation has awarded a $25,000 seed grant to Dr. Séguin’s lab.

Notochord of a developing mouse Genetically engineered mouse embryo in which notochord cells within the intervertebral disc along the tail can be seen in blue.

After years of work, Dr. Séguin and her colleagues succeeded in developing a one-of-a-kind genetically engineered mouse that enables researchers to observe and manipulate an embryonic tissue called the notochord. The notochord is important because during development it gives rise to the intervertebral disc, the degeneration of which is the primary cause of back pain afflicting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In addition to forming the discs, some notochordal cells get lodged inside the developing vertebrae, and, in about 1 in 5 people, these notochordal cells form small benign tumors inside the spine. Occasionally, these benign notochordal cell tumors turn malignant and become a cancer known as chordoma.

Little is known about what causes notochordal cells to turn into chordoma, but now Dr. Séguin’s mouse makes it possible to study that transformation. To do so, Dr. Séguin needs to isolate notochordal cells from her mouse and turn them into a cell line – a constantly dividing family of cells grown in a petri-dish. Creating a notochordal cell line will give scientists a blank slate upon which to introduce genetic changes to see which cellular pathways become activated and cause the cells to become cancerous. This could shed light on the cause of chordoma, and, in turn, could point to potential therapies that address the root cause of chordoma.

The Chordoma Foundation is pleased to award Dr. Séguin a $25,000 seed grant to support her attempts to develop the world’s first notochordal cell line. This grant was made possible by funds raised through the fourth annual Purple Aster Concert, an annual music event in Calgary, Canada, held in memory of chordoma patient Alison Laird. The concert is organized by Alison’s husband, Ian, and friend, Carolyn Harley. Chordoma Foundation board member, Dr. Ed Les, also of Calgary, matched donations by concertgoers to fully sponsor the grant.

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