Cancer Research: Advances in Genomics

In 1997, Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Smith had a dream: to create Canada’s first genomic research centre dedicated to the study of cancer,  in British Columbia. Here are the latest developments in that research.

At the time, genomics was still in development; it would be another three years before scientists decoded the human genome. But far-sighted British Columbians shared Smith’s vision and invested $24 million through the BC Cancer Foundation to establish Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency.

“The Genome Sciences Centre exists today because donors banded together and decided that B.C. needed this world-leading research facility, and they made that happen,” says director Dr. Marco Marra.

Today, as one of the largest genome centres in the world, it has achieved a global reputation for the quality and quantity of its work. Four major research breakthroughs at the BC Cancer Agency in the past year attest to this. Each revealed specific genetic mutations underlying the cause or development of cancers. Many more are on the horizon.

All were made possible by the next-generation computer sequencing technology provided by Marra’s team, with its gargantuan capacity to process and analyze torrents of data at previously unimaginable rates and at a fraction of the original cost.

Ten years ago, sifting through the human DNA code to find individual genetic mutations was the proverbial hunt for the needle in a haystack on a colossal scale.

“Up until about two years ago, we had no way to look through the thousands of kilometers of DNA in each of an individual’s trillions of cells,” Marra explains. “We knew that the amount of individual characters that specify your DNA was astronomical – and that’s all we could say. Today we are at the beginning of a revolution of advances.”

The Genome Sciences Centre‘s technology platform provides Agency researchers with very specific biological targets at which to aim new treatments to improve patients’ outcomes.

Now, personalized medicine – once a distant possibility – is within our grasp.

This was demonstrated by the Centre’s latest breakthrough, recently published in Genome Biology where, for the first time ever, Marra’s team sequenced the genome of a living patient’s tumour, which guided oncologists to a treatment regime for his rare and aggressive cancer. It worked – the cancer was halted for several precious months.

“In the near future we will be able to routinely look at tumours at the genetic level and be able to determine whether it is possible to ‘tailor’ a patient’s treatment and ultimately improve that patient’s outcome,” Marra says. “There are still many challenges before this kind of approach becomes routine, but our study provides initial proof-of-concept. We are encouraged.”

Dr. Michael Smith lived to see his dream come true, becoming the Genome Sciences Centre‘s founding director. Today, as the Centre continues to play a leading role in unraveling the complexities of cancer, BC Cancer Foundation donors are uniquely positioned alongside this medical frontier, as its partners in discovery.

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