A Legacy of Innovation 

UHN’s Cancer Cytogenetics Laboratory Celebrates 35 Years of Breaking New Ground 

The year was 1986. In the dark, dingy basement of the Banting Institute, three technologists, one administrative assistant and one clinical lab scientist, Dr. Ian Dube, got to work in what was then ‘the new’ The Cancer Cytogenetics Laboratory (CCL).  

35 years on, the (CCL) at LMP has grown to become one of the biggest Cytogenetics Laboratories in Canada, staffed by fourteen genetics specialist technologists, three  technicians and five clinical laboratory scientists. Our new ultramodern lab space at the MaRS West Tower receives over 5,000 samples annually and is one of the few cytogenetics labs in Canada that specializes exclusively in Cancer Cytogenetics.  

“The old days involved analyzing metaphases at microscopes, taking pictures with cameras, developing film and printing pictures on paper,” says CCL Charge Technologist Shawn Brennan, who, with Sandra Johnson and Deborah Zalepa made up the original team hired to staff the CCL. “We would manually cut chromosomes out of the photos with scissors, then stick them on karyotype cards with tape.” 

Over the years, photography was replaced with digital imaging and specialized software to perform karyotype analysis. The CCL was a pioneer in Canada in adopting robotic slide scanning and the replacement of microscopes with computer analysis work stations automating this tedious manual task originally performed by the cytogenetics technologist.  Other techniques were also added to the CCL’s repertoire, such as fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) testing. The expansion of the CCL’s FISH test repertoire, including solid tumour indications on paraffin-embedded samples, gives us one of the most extensive FISH probe menus of all Canadian labs for cancer testing.  

“The Cancer Cytogenetics Laboratory is still at the forefront of cytogenetics technology,” Brennan says, adding that the CCL has always been focused on technological innovation and its ability to provide timely and accurate results to patients so they receive the best possible care.   

Current CCL Director, Dr. Adam Smith, has been the driving force behind a pilot project using a technique called Optical Genome Mapping (Bionano Genomics) that can do a genome analysis with 10,000 times the resolution of a G-banded karyotype.  The CCL is a global leader in the adoption of Optical Genome Mapping for clinical use – yet another innovation for the lab and what will be a significant improvement in patient care.

“At the end of the day,” Brennan says, “while the technology has improved, the location has changed, and the size of the lab staff has increased, our key strength has always been, and continues to be, a dedicated staff willing to do their utmost to provide the highest quality cytogenetics results to insure the best care for our patients.”  

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