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Building Research Momentum in the North

October 19, 2023

Dr. Rob Olson, Radiation oncologist and research lead

A lot can change in 10 years. In 2013, the U.K. was still part of the European Union, streaming platforms were just emerging and Hamilton had not yet made a relatively obscure 18th century politician a household name.

For radiation oncologist and research lead Dr. Rob Olson, the past decade saw BC Cancer – Prince George (Centre for the North) grow from a new, seemingly remote cancer centre to a precision radiation research hub.

The path wasn’t easy, he admits. “When I initially wrote grants, the grant reviewers gave feedback that the centre probably lacked the infrastructure and staff to run radiation clinical trials. But I was able to produce so many research papers that they couldn’t really use that argument anymore.”

Today, BC Cancer – Prince George is home to a team of world-class researchers participating in cutting-edge SABR clinical trials. SABR is an innovative, high-precision therapy that delivers higher doses of radiation over less treatments.

Last November, the team gained recognition for their SABR-5 trial, which looked at the effects of SABR treatments on patients whose cancer had spread from the original location to up to five new sites. “This research is important as it showed that the side effects from SABR are low and the control of the cancer spread is high (90% at one year),” said Dr. Olson at the time.

The Foundation recently contributed $1.75 million to expand precision radiation therapy in Prince George, thanks to the support of hundreds of donors, including local businesses and residents.

The team is building on this momentum as they prepare to launch SIMPLIFY-SABRCOMET. SIMPLIFY is an international Phase III trial looking at the curative rates and side effects of using a single SABR treatment versus multiple (up to eight) SABR treatments. All BC Cancer centres will be participating, as well as over 10 international sites, but it will be managed from Prince George and Dr. Olson is expanding his team to staff the trial – something he says is a point of pride for the centre.

“Clinical trials serve as a recruitment and retention tool for our centre. We have research fellows and staff move to Prince George specifically because we’re running these trials.”

This research stands to benefit patients across the province, but rural patients in particular will be impacted. Fewer treatment sessions reduces the need to travel to cancer centres. Follow-ups can be done virtually and physical exams completed by the patient’s family doctor or General Practitioner in Oncology (GPO) – specially trained physicians who provide cancer care in communities around the province.

Decreasing the number of radiation sessions per patient will also increase BC Cancer’s capacity to deliver care.

“Our main goal is to learn if giving SABR in one treatment can become the standard of care. We predict SABR is going to be used more and more in the future, and shorter treatment times will create less strain on our treatment facilities.”

The BC Cancer Foundation is supporting SIMPLIFY through a $2.2 million fundraising campaign.

Dr. Olson is grateful for the Foundation’s continued support for his team’s research and shares that donor funding is particularly vital for radiation research, as they – unlike other areas of cancer research – don’t receive backing from pharmaceutical companies running trials.

Ten years ago, it would have been unimaginable that large-scale international trials could be run out of Prince George. Dr. Olson and the BC Cancer – Prince George team, along with the Foundation’s dedicated donor community, have made it possible. What will be achieved in the next decade?