Director, Genome Sciences Centre, BC Cancer Agency

It really is a very exciting time to work at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre (GSC). We are working with many other research teams, both at the Agency and around the world, to help better understand cancer and to use this advanced knowledge to succeed in treating cancer cells.

In the last 18 months, there have been a number of world-class genome science breakthroughs at the BC Cancer Agency in breast, ovarian and lymphoid cancers — and the GSC has been involved in all of them.

In these studies, many new genes with “spelling mistakes” (mutations) in them have been identified.  We have analyzed these spelling mistakes to find that, in some cases, they inactivate genes, and in other cases the spelling mistakes appear to activate other genes.  When we see the same genes activated or inactivated in many tumours of the same type, we think this means that the tumour favors cells that either gain, or alternatively lose, very specific functions that in either case help the tumour grow.  If we are right, it means that the DNA sequencing has revealed functions that the tumour needs to survive.  If so, this is important — if we can interfere with those functions, we can eliminate the mutated cancer cells while ideally leaving the normal cells, which don’t have the mutations, alone.  We hope that this might mean more effective treatments and less toxicity for cancer patients.

So what does it mean when we discover these new genes?  It means we have new “targets” to attack — new cracks in the tumours armour — and if we can figure out how to attack these weak points, we will kill the tumour.  Sometimes, the best way to attack these weak points will be through the development of new therapies.  But in other cases, we know that the DNA sequencing will suggest that an existing treatment, already used for a different purpose, could be used to combat the tumour.  We are very excited about the implications of both of these possibilities.

And while right now we are only looking at genome analysis at a broad level, one day we hope to get to a point where the technology is so affordable and quick that we can be using it to analyze personal genomes.

This would mean that, in the future, the technology could be used as part of the procedure used when a cancer diagnosis is made.  If this could be done, a list of drugs could be produced, based on the specific genetic make-up of the tumour.  This could lead to tailored treatments that would be most successful for each individual patient.

While there remain many things to do before this vision becomes reality, our own experiences have confirmed that it is possible, but currently far, far from routine.  More work is definitely required to address this important opportunity. I hope you’ve enjoyed just a taste of the work we do at the GSC and how I truly believe we are making a difference for cancer patients in B.C. and around the world.