Dr. Janessa Laskin and Dr. Marco Marra are part of a research initiative by the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

Cancer program changing patient diagnosis and treatment

It’s a research initiative of the B.C Cancer Foundation that promises to change the way cancer is diagnosed and treated.

It’s a research initiative of the B.C Cancer Foundation that, according to its clinical lead, Dr. Janessa Laskin, promises to fundamentally change the way cancer is diagnosed and treated.

The program, called Personalized Onco-Genomics — or simply POG — is based on the fact that cancer is a complex disease with an enormous variability in behaviour and response. Researchers have known for some time that the same types of cancer  — sometimes even in varying locations in the same patient — will respond differently to therapy. Cancer may even evolve in response to treatment.

Researchers have now determined that one cause of this variability is that every cancer has a unique molecular signature.

That’s where POG comes in. Patients within the study are subjected to in-depth DNA and RNA sequencing that in turn is used to identify mutations, gene ‘expression changes’ or other abnormalities that might be driving the cancer in question.

The approach promises to be a game changer, and thanks to Laskin and Dr. Marco Marra, the genome lead on the project, it has placed B.C. in the forefront of this field of research and treatment.

“We’re way ahead of the curve. This just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Laskin.

The program started in 2008 when a colleague, Dr. Donald Rix, who had been diagnosed with cancer, sought treatment from Laskin for his ‘very unusual’ type of the disease.

“We didn’t really know which of the drugs we had would work and he suggested that we consider gene sequencing of the tumor to help narrow down treatment,” said Laskin.

This was all happening at a time when the technology for gene sequencing had advanced to a point where the concept was becoming viable.

Based on the initial success of that approach, and continued advances in both performing gene sequencing and understanding its results, the POG program was launched in 2014.

Since then, the program has admitted 485 patients. And there have been some successes.

Take Trish for example.

Her case study is recounted by the B.C. Cancer Foundation on their website and tells the story of a vibrant mother of a 27-year-old son whose aggressive colorectal cancer had resisted chemotherapy, several surgeries and radiation therapy. Facing a terminal diagnosis, she was enrolled in the study where genetic sequencing of the cancer identified a protein up-regulation that appeared to be driving her particular disease. A drug, generally prescribed to control blood pressure, was administered and within weeks the cancer had abated.

According to Laskin, there have been other similar success stories.

“These are still pretty much ‘one-off’ cases, but they all serve to open new areas of research and treatment,” said Laskin.

As to why this study is unique to B.C., Laskin acknowledges that other cancer centres around the world are now trying to get up to speed on the approach.

But it’s an approach that isn’t easily emulated.

“We’re lucky to have the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre right here in Vancouver,” said Laskin. “It’s one of the top three facilities of it’s kind in the world.”

The scientists involved in the project are called ‘bio-informationalists’ and they specialize in interpreting the gene sequencing information that is at the heart of the project. Under the leadership of Marra, these skilled individuals make sense of the data generated by the sequencing project.

Laskin explained the process is a combination of biology and mathematics. She said the amount of data is “mind-boggling.”

“The real challenge is to have the scientists who understand these masses of data and can tease out the relevant information to allow us to translate that into treatment programs.”

But the program is not without its challenges.

Funding is always difficult. The POG program has been funded almost entirely through the B.C. Cancer Foundation, which relies significantly on public and corporate donations. That funding has been augmented by grants.

Another problem is access to drugs that would help patients but are not available due to regulatory restrictions. Drugs are licensed for use for specific ailments and the ‘off-label’ use of those drugs for other purposes is often restricted.

But Laskin is optimistic.

“We just have to collect the data and recognize that we’re at the beginning of a new era of oncology. We’re on a steep learning curve in which we’re really having to educate the establishment, both here in B.C. and around the world,” she said.

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Struggling to afford rent, Sylvia Bailey is hoping to trade her love of cooking for some more affordable accommodation. (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Bailey)
Retired Victoria woman looking to cook, clean or garden in exchange for rent

Sylvia Bailey is hoping to use her love for cooking to help afford rent

Victoria police are searching for a suspect after a stabbing Monday night. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria police searching for suspect in late-night stabbing

Victim taken to hospital with potentially life-threatening injuries

Panthers’ Captain Tanner Wort faces Tory McClintick of the Victoria Cougars during Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League action Friday night at Panorama Recreation Centre. The Panthers lost 3-0, then lost 7-2 Sunday. (Gordon Lee/Submitted)
Peninsula Panthers’ losing streak reaches four games as injuries mount

Injuries have especially hurt the team’s backline with only four defenders available

The drive-through COVID-19 testing facility at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital. (Black Press Media file photo)
Island Health opens COVID-19 testing site at UVic

As with all other sites, an appointment is needed to receive a test

Thousands filled Centennial Square in June for the peace rally for Black lives, sparked by outrage over the death of George Floyd in the U.S. (Black Press Media file photo)
Survey seeks input on racism in Greater Victoria

Confidential answers to inform work with immigrants and marginalized people

Carolyn and Steve Touhey came across a pod of humpback whales while on their boat Sunday, Oct. 25. Photo supplied
VIDEO: Boaters encounter pod of humpbacks in Georgia Strait

Pod spotted between Comox and Texada Island

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
U.S. election results one factor that could impact immigration to Canada next year

The survey polled 1,523 Canadians between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25

The voting station mimicked a real voting station in Nicole Choi’s classroom at Chilliwack middle school on Oct. 22, 2020, where students had to show their ID (student cards), be checked off a list, and mark a secret ballot behind a screen. (Jessica Peters/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. students choose NDP majority in mock election

More than 90,000 youth took part in school-based election process

Crew transport bus at the Trans Mountain pipeline project work site in Burnaby, March 2020. (Trans Mountain)
Check your workplace COVID-19 safety plans, Dr. Henry urges

Masks in public spaces, distance in lunchrooms for winter

B.C.’s Court of Appeal is in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Judgment reserved in Surrey Six slayings appeals

Six men were killed in suite 1505 of the Balmoral Tower in Whalley on Oct. 19, 2007

Kelowna City Hall has been vandalized overnight. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Kelowna City Hall hit by anti-pandemic vandalism

Graffiti condemning the virus appears overnight on City Hall

FILE – A woman smokes a marijuana joint at a “Wake and Bake” legalized marijuana event in Toronto on October 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Home nurse visits could play big role in reducing cannabis use, smoking in young mothers

The program, dubbed the BC Healthy Connections Project, involves public health nursing home visits

Most Read