In 1997, Nobel laureate Dr Michael Smith created Canada’s first genomic research centre dedicated to the study of cancer in British Columbia.
At the time, genomics was still in development—it would be another 3 years before scientists decoded the human genome. British Columbians invested $24 million through the BC Cancer Foundation to establish Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency.
Now one of the largest genome centres in the world, the centre has announced four major research breakthroughs in the past year revealing specific genetic mutations underlying the cause or development of cancers. All these breakthroughs were made possible by next-generation computer sequencing technology, which has the 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. Up until about 2 years ago, researchers had no way to look through thousands of kilometres of DNA in each of an individual’s trillions of cells.
The Genome Sciences Centre’s technology platform provides BC Cancer 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 researchers’ grasp.
This was demonstrated by the Centre’s latest breakthrough, recently published in Genome Biology. Centre director Dr Marco Marra and his team sequenced the genome of a living patient’s tumor for the first time, which guided oncologists to a treatment regime for his rare and aggressive cancer. It worked—the cancer was halted for several months.
Although there are many challenges to overcome before this type of approach becomes routine, in the near future researchers will be able to look at tumors at the genetic level to determine whether it is possible to tailor a patient’s treatment and ultimately improve that patient’s outcome.
BC Cancer Foundation
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