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B.C. invests $3 million in personalized treatment tool for hard-to-beat cancers

Personalized onco-genomics involves using genome sequencing to pinpoint targeted drug therapies for patients with the hardest-to-treat cancers.

Premier Christy Clark, left, and Dr. Janessa Laskin, medical oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency, speak to reporters Tuesday at a news conference announcing $3 million in funding for personalized onco-genomics research.

Flickr: Province of British Columbia

Premier Christy Clark, left, and Dr. Janessa Laskin, medical oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency, speak to reporters Tuesday at a news conference announcing $3 million in funding for personalized onco-genomics research.

The B.C. government is investing $3 million in genome sequencing research that could help provide personalized treatment plans for thousands of patients diagnosed with advanced cancer.

Premier Christy Clark announced the new funding Tuesday for the BC Cancer Agency’s personalized onco-genomics program, which allows researchers to use advanced genome sequencing to pinpoint targeted drug therapies for patients with the hardest-to-treat cancers.

“We are going to change lives,” said Clark, whose mother died of brain cancer after surviving breast cancer. “Imagine a future where someone that you love is diagnosed with cancer … and being able to tell (them), ‘You have cancer and we’re going to make sure you get cured.’ That’s a pretty amazing thought.”

Onco-genomics involves taking a biopsy of a patient’s tumour and using advanced genome sequencing techniques to determine its genetic makeup, allowing researchers to understand what is enabling it to grow and to develop the most effective treatment strategies to block its growth.

Through the BC Cancer Agency’s personalized onco-genomics program, doctors and scientists analyze the genetic information and look at each patient’s individual case to determine possible treatments. The process takes about 12 weeks.

Dr. Janessa Laskin, medical oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency, said the technique is still “very experimental,” but that it is has helped physicians select targeted therapies that have helped a “remarkable number” of patients.

“These treatments are usually treatments that we never would have given to these individuals had we not identified these targets,” she said, adding that in about 20 per cent of cases, doctors have repurposed a drug that exists to treat another condition, like diabetes, for cancer.

Only a small proportion of cancer patients are eligible to take part in the BC Cancer Agency’s personalized onco-genomics program. Eligible patients include those with incurable cancer who have not had a lot of chemotherapy treatment.

Patient Jennifer Strack speaks to reporters Tuesday about how personalized onco-genomics has helped treat her cancer.

Flickr: Province of British Columbia

Patient Jennifer Strack speaks to reporters Tuesday about how personalized onco-genomics has helped treat her cancer.

Patient Jennifer Strack credits the program with saving her life after she was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer at the age of 41, despite being a non-smoker.

When her cancer didn’t respond to standard chemotherapy, Strack was offered gene testing and was eventually given a drug that led to dramatic shrinkage of her main tumour within a month.

“Each x-ray since then has continued to show improvement and I’m slowly getting back to feeling normal again,” she said. “Hope now isn’t just a word. I’m living proof that there is hope.”

Since the BC Cancer Agency launched clinical trials of the program in 2012, more than 350 patients representing 50 different cancer types have enrolled so far.

The next phase of the program will expand to help at least 2,000 patients over the next five years.

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