Director, Genome Sciences Centre, BC Cancer Agency

Since genomics can seem complicated, let’s start with the basics so that you understand a bit better what my team does.

Many people are aware that the cells of living organisms contain DNA that encodes the information that their cells need to grow and divide normally.  The term genome refers to the DNA within the cells.  Although most of the genome is similar between individuals, there are also a lot of differences.  For instance, the copy of the genome that we inherited from Mom is different than the copy of the genome that we inherited from Dad.

Genomics refers to a collection of special tools, approaches and ideas that we use to study the genome.  The reason that we need special tools is because the genome encodes a huge amount of information.  So huge, in fact, that we do not yet understand all the information.  An interesting calculation suggests just how huge the potential is for the genome to encode information, although it is made up of only four chemicals, abbreviated A, G, T and C.  If you were to print out the three billion A’s, G’s, T’s and C’s that make up the genome in characters one millimetre wide, you would have a string of characters that would stretch from Vancouver to Thunder Bay.  And that’s just in one cell of the estimated 100 trillion cells in the body!

We know that cancer can arise when the order of the letters in the genome – the sequence – is changed.  Because such a change can disrupt the cell’s code, the cell can become abnormal and result in a cancer.  You can think of this disruption in the sequence as a “spelling mistake” in the code.

My team at the Genome Sciences Centre is using technology – genomics – to analyze all of those letters in cancer cells to find the spelling mistakes.  We are using powerful machines and computers to literally hunt for the needles in the haystack that cause cancer. Once we have found the spelling mistakes, we can then study the code that has been disrupted.  Our hope is to counter the effect of this disrupted code and thereby destroy the cancer cell.

We are essentially working towards better understanding of all the different types of cancer in order to provide direct, targeted and effective treatment to cancer patients. If you’re interested in the science, you can find a list of our current and completed projects here.