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About Us

Our laboratory is located at Women's College Hospital (WCH) and is part of Women's College Research Institute (WCRI), fully affiliated with University of Toronto. Our research aims to prevent cancer, diagnose it before it is detectable in the clinic and treat it more efficiently by studying cancer genetics. In collaboration with other scientists at WRCI, we are carrying out a comprehensive research program for leveraging molecular genetics knowledge in different aspects of cancer management. This includes searching for new cancer predisposing genes, establishing and studying the benefits of more comprehensive cancer genetic tests, and extending genetic knowledge beyond hereditary cancers to all sporadic cancer cases by looking for new cancer biomarkers and studying circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) and tracing it in the blood stream.


Our Team

Our Team

Dr. Mohammad R. Akbari, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Akbari is an Associate Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto (U of T), and a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI), Women’s College Hospital (WCH). He is also an adjunct faculty member at Institute of Medical Science, faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto and the director of the Molecular Genetics Research Laboratory at Women's College Hospital.

Agata Szymiczek, M.Sc.

Agata joined our lab in 2017 after three years of work experience in cancer genetics from University of Hawaii Cancer Center. Her position as a research technologist entails bench work, lab management responsibilities and providing training to new lab members.

Dr. Shiyu Zhang, M.D.

Dr. Zhang is a senior research technologist with over 10 years of laboratory working experience in our team. He is mostly responsible for bench work using different laboratory platforms.

Maryam Bagherzadeh, M.Sc Candidate

Maryam is a second year graduate student working on discovering new breast cancer susceptibility genes using Bahamian population as founder population with high incidence rate of breast cancer.

Fabian Wong, M.Sc Candidate

Fabian is a first year graduate student working on using ctDNA as a biomarker for determining residual disease after ovarian cancer surgery.

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Research Projects

Reserch Projects

Investigating the Role of RECQL in Breast Cancer Susceptibility

In our previous work, we identified RECQL as a breast cancer susceptibility gene. The next step – and the goal of this study – is to explore the significance of RECQL mutations in breast cancer on a broader level.


To get a better estimate of the RECQL mutation frequency and the breast cancer risk associated with carrying a RECQL pathogenic mutation, we are screening 5,000 patients and 1,000 healthy women from Ontario for mutations on the entire coding region of the gene. In addition, we determine whether or not any of the observed RECQL missense mutations are pathogenic using in vitro functional assays [...]

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The Screen Project

The current model for delivering genetic testing for BRCA genes in North America was developed in the mid-1990s, at a time when genetic testing was expensive and the clinical benefits were largely unproven. In this model, women are referred by their physicians to a specialized cancer genetics clinic where a formal assessment is conducted. If the risk estimate for carrying a mutation exceeds a threshold value (usually 10%) then genetic testing for the BRCA genes ensues. If not, then the women is reassured and she is sent off with a number of recommendations based on her personal and family history of cancer.


We believe the current model is outdated and propose an alternate model based on direct-to- consumer, population-based testing, for the following reasons [...]


Iranome Genomic Variation Database

Access to clinical genetic testing has been growing continuously around the globe since the introduction of the next generation sequencing technology to the field of genetics about a decade ago. Widespread access to genetic testing will have a remarkable impact on realizing the vision of precision medicine to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disorders, many of which have genetic etiology. However, many ethnic groups are not represented in current human genome variation databases. The benefits of precision medicine may not be realized for these groups if we do not address this gap. With this in mind, and considering ethical, cultural and social aspects we in collaboration with Dr. Hossein Najmabadi at Social Welfare and Rehabilitation University, Tehran, Iran, established the Iranome database ( by performing whole exome sequencing on 800 individuals from eight major ethnic groups that live in Iran [...]


Using ctDNA for Detecting Residual Disease and Predicting Recurrence in Ovarian Cancer 

Advanced-stage serous ovarian cancer is responsible for 80% of all ovarian cancer deaths and is associated with a 15% five-year survival rate. The majority of women with high-grade serous ovarian cancer will have a recurrence and ultimately die of their disease. Recurrence arises because of the growth and dissemination of cancer cells that remain after initial surgery and chemotherapy. The report of residual cancer is based on visual inspection, and thus, may not be an accurate reflection of true residual disease. Given the limitations associated with surgical reporting of residual disease, along with the prognostic role of no visible residual disease, we explore the utility of circulating cell-free tumour DNA (ctDNA) to quantify residual disease [...]


Novel Biomarkers for Ovarian Cancer Screening

Ovarian cancer (OC) remains a major health concern worldwide, accounting for 6% of all cancer deaths. It is the second most common gynecological neoplasm, with over 2,800 new cases diagnosed in 2017, in Canada. The majority of OC cases remain asymptomatic in the early stage and present at advanced stages, at which the disease is rarely curable by existing standard of care. Therefore, ovarian cancer shows the highest mortality rate among gynecologic cancers, with 5‑year survival rate for advanced OC determined as 29%. Importantly, disease outcome is significantly higher (5-year survival rates over 90%) with early diagnosis [...]


RUBY Study

Reduce the bUrden of Breast cancer in Young women (RUBY) aged 40 and under is an ongoing pan-Canadian collaborative study that was jointly funded by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2015. The Co-PIs of the RUBY study are Drs. May-Lynn Quan and Steven Narod. Dr. Akbari, is one of the co-investigators of the RUBY study who is responsible for the biobank of the project [...]

The Screen Project
Liquid Biopsy
Ovarian Cancer Biomarker
RUBY Study

Searching for New Cancer Susceptibility Genes

One aspect of our research program is searching for new cancer susceptibility genes. After a series of unsuccessful attempts by the scientific community to discover new cancer genes, in particular for breast cancer, using the exome sequencing approach, we proposed that using founder populations who have a lower background genetic variation would improve success. We were able to test this idea in a small sample size of Polish and French-Canadian breast cancer patients, which resulted in the discovery of the latest breast cancer susceptibility gene, RECQL. Now, we are leading several projects on different cancers using the same approach. We are currently funded to search for new susceptibility genes for breast and prostate cancers using founder populations in the Bahamas and Poland with help of our collaborators in those countries.


Laboratory Facility


Our research molecular genetics laboratory is in the newly constructed building of the Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in downtown Toronto, close to the University of Toronto’s main campus. Our laboratory is the only dedicated research laboratory at WCH and is directed by Dr. Akbari. Our team of scientists at WCH has been awarded two consecutive grants in 2013 and 2015 from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation for purchasing several molecular genetics platforms. Our laboratory has been equipped with mid and high throughput Next Generation Sequencing technology, a Sanger sequencer machine, two robotic liquid handlers, a nanoscale robotic dispenser, a digital droplet PCR, a real-time PCR machine, Qiasymphony automation system for processing biological samples for the extraction of DNA and RNA including the isolation of cfDNA from plasma samples, and many other general molecular laboratory equipment.

Contact us if you need help with the laboratory work of your research projects 



Our laboratory contains a biobank of over 250,000 biospecimens from over 70,000 individuals. The biobank consists of DNA samples derived from peripheral blood, DNA and RNA samples extracted from tumour tissues and serum and plasma samples. Having a well annotated biobank of biological samples from individuals with and without cancer is crucial for achieving our research goals. One of the strategic goals of our laboratory is to enhance our bio-repository to include different biological samples from a variety of cancer types. Currently we have large cohorts of patients with breast, ovarian, prostate, esophageal, colon, pancreas and lung cancers.



Dr. Akbari has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers in his relatively short career; some of them are in prestigious journals such as Nature Genetics, Journal of National cancer Institute (JNCI), Journal of Cancer Oncology and JAMA Oncology. for reviewing the full list of publications, please click the link below. 


Funding Support



Next Generation Sequencing Data Analysis


Next generation sequencing (NGS) technology has become an essential tool in genetic and genomic analysis. The majority of the genetic tests we use in the clinic are directly or indirectly dependent to this technology. In fact the NGS technology has revolutionized the genetic tests available in clinical practice from cancer management to molecular diagnosis of rare disorders and even prenatal screening.

The NGS technology has played a crucial role in advancing pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics and utilizing that knowledge in improving human health. But the application of NGS technology is not limited to human genetics. This technology has been also playing an essential role in understanding microbiome and its interaction with the human body and its role in human health and disorders. Therefore, it is increasingly important for experimental scientists to gain the bioinformatics skills required to assess and analyse the large volumes of sequencing data produced by next generation sequencers. This course will provide an introduction to the technology, data analysis, tools and resources for dealing with next generation sequencing (NGS) data.


The content is intended to provide a broad overview of the subject areas, and to highlight key resources, approaches and methodologies. The course will provide a hands-on introduction to bioinformatics for next generation sequencing. Topics will be delivered using a mixture of lectures and practical sessions. At the end of this course, participants can expect to have the expertise to independently run data analysis for DNA sequencing experiments.


Media Coverage

Media Coverage


Contact Information

Office Address:

                               76 Grenville St, Room 6421

                             Toronto, ON, M5S 1B2


                             Tel: 416-351-3800 Ext. 5299


Laboratory address:

                                76 Grenville St, Room 7341

                              Toronto, ON, M5S 1B2


                               Tel: 416-351-3800 Ext. 4841



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