People Making a Difference

November 20, 2014

The Dalai Lama once said “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” I love this quote; it speaks to me on so many levels, especially when I go camping! And it reminds me that we are all capable of creating change and affecting the world around us.

Some people seem more adept at this; they cause a stir wherever they go. I met such a man in 2008, Dr. Donald Rix. I would guess most British Columbians and many Canadians will know his name as he was a physician, entrepreneur, philanthropist, winner of the Order of BC and Order of Canada, and a man of keen intellect and insatiable curiosity. Unfortunately I met him as a patient when he came to see me with a diagnosis of incurable metastatic cancer. Some of you may have read this story published recently in the Vancouver Sun.

When I offered Dr. Rix our standard chemotherapy treatment he simply stated that it wasn’t good enough. He challenged me to find out exactly what was driving his cancer to grow and to try to find a treatment that would work for his cancer specifically. This is something we had never attempted before.

Working with Drs. Marco Marra and Steven Jones and the team at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre, we took a sample of his cancer and looked at what had gone wrong with the genome of his cancer cells. The genome, in essence, is the set of instructions telling a cell how to behave. Armed with this information we picked a treatment based on Dr. Rix’s cancer biology, gave it to him, and it worked. We then published this account because it was the first time whole genome sequencing had ever been used to inform treatment for a cancer patient.

Subsequently we have built on this experience to create a program we call Personalized Onco-Genomics (POG). In the last two years we have sequenced over 100 patients in B.C. – we have been making a difference. To date, this cutting edge research has been funded solely by the BC Cancer Foundation. Many potential research projects die because researchers cannot find funding to get them started and this is often where philanthropy can play a role, by giving something a chance. When we approached the Foundation with a request to launch the POG Program they recognized the opportunity we had to change how cancer could be understood and treated.

On November 1st the BC Cancer Foundation’s 10th anniversary Inspiration Gala set a new Canadian record for fundraising. With the generosity of many individuals and some industry partners, we raised five million dollars to help us take POG to the next level. In this next year we will use this money to increase our sequencing capacity to several hundred cancer patients in B.C. We will share our results at national and international meetings to make sure that the whole world benefits from this research. Every patient sequenced makes an immense contribution to our knowledge and understanding of cancer biology. The funds raised for POG will also be leveraged to access competitive grant funding to carry this project forward. It is through this in-depth understanding that we will learn how to truly personalize cancer care.

On behalf of myself and the whole POG research team (of over 100 clinicians and scientists) we are so grateful to those who so generously donate. The BC Cancer Foundation launched POG and we will make it fly. And this all started because one man, Dr. Don Rix, refused to accept the status quo.

Thanks for reading,