In the genes

In the genes

Looking for new ways to fight cancer, researchers turn to the science of genomics
October 1, 2003

Here are few things as frightening as a diagnosis of cancer.

Patients and doctors alike know that while the success rate for tackling some cancers has soared, there is no guarantee of how individual patients will react to treatment for the 200 diseases that lurk under cancer's banner.

One of the frustrations for oncologists is how well some people respond to courses of chemotherapy, while the same treatment can't help others. "Even in late-stage cancer, there are people who survive treatment well and others who don't," says Victor Ling, Vice-president of Research for the BC Cancer Agency. "We don't know why, because they have the same stage cancer, the same pathology, and so forth. The prevailing wisdom is that it's due to genetic variations of the patient, or slight genetic variations of the cancer cells themselves, or both."

With that in mind, researchers at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver are turning to the science of genomics to help solve the puzzle. "Our scientists tell us how critically important genomics is as a tool in tracking down the genes that cause cancer," says Mary McNeil, President and CEO of the BC Cancer Foundation. "Their research, in collaboration with other research areas at the soon-to-be-completed BC Cancer Research Centre, will allow prevention and treatments to be individually customized. This will make a vital difference in the lives of people living with cancer, not just here in British Columbia but world-wide."

Ling says researchers now agree that the fundamental cause of cancer starts in the genome, or at the genetic level. A mutation in the DNA of cells eventually turns those once-healthy cells into cancer cells. Ling and his colleagues at UBC, the Cancer Research Centre, and the Cancer Agency believe that by examining the genetic composition or profile of individual cells, they can figure out what RNA or proteins are involved in the progression of cancer. Armed with the genetic information they need, Ling says they'll be in a better position to target drug delivery by formulating customized drug therapies for each individual. "The expectation is that in the future, we'll be able to prescribe appropriate drugs to appropriate patients based on their genetic and genomic profiles."

As a result, these researchers have organized partnerships under an umbrella organization—or virtual platform—known as the Centre for Integrated Genomics. The Centre links the new BC Cancer Research Centre and the new UBC Biotechnology Laboratory to apply genome science in cancer, medicine, and other areas of biology. It will consolidate a critical mass of genome research, involving hundreds of researchers. One of the reasons behind creating the Centre for Integrated Genomics is to create an inventory of the changes in DNA and the consequences of those changes for cancer cells.

Benefits

Victor Ling is internationally known for discovering the P-glycoprotein, a mechanism found in cells. P-glycoproteins pump substances out of normal cells to protect our bodies from drugs and other harmful compounds. Although designed for an excellent purpose, in cancer cells P-glycoproteins can be counter-productive. These pump-like proteins often clear chemotherapy out of the cells, making it impossible for the drugs to do their job to kill cancerous cells.

Ling's discovery of the P-glycoprotein has led researchers to concentrate their efforts on the 48 different genes that produce these "pumps." They hope they can one day create drugs that can block the P-glycoproteins in a way that doesn't harm normal tissue—but directs action against cancer cells. "We're not there yet as far as turning cancer around, but that will come," says Ling. "This kind of technology could have a dramatic impact on cancer outcomes."

Partners

The center for Integrated Genomics is a unique collaboration among existing institutions and researchers. It's a joint project of the University of British Columbia and the BC Cancer Agency that links gene studies, biotechnology, and cancer research. Researchers associated with the Centre are often cross-appointed to universities, hospitals, and research institutions. Their common link: using the science of genomics to achieve breakthroughs in medicine, cancer research, and other areas of biology. Many of the researchers will be housed in the $95-million BC Cancer Research Centre, scheduled to open in early 2005 with up to 600 researchers.

The Centre is being financed with a contribution from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and matching funds from the BC Cancer Research Foundation and British Columbia's Knowledge Development Fund. The Genome Sciences Centre, which is already in existence, will occupy one floor of the building. The Centre for Integrated Genomics will be a virtual link or platform for research members associated with the Genome Sciences Centre, Vancouver Hospital, the BC Cancer Agency, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the BC Cancer Research Centre itself.

The Genome Sciences Centre, which is the largest genome laboratory of its kind in Canada and the only one in the country dedicated to cancer research, attracts top scientists from around the world. "As part of the BC Cancer Research Centre and the Cancer Agency, we have the chance to collaborate with world-renowned scientists and clinical staff," says Dr. Marco Marra, Director of the BC Cancer Agency's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. "This collaboration, combined with the unique population-based cancer control mandate of the BC Cancer Agency, allows genomic information to be integrated with diagnostic and treatment information. That's what gives us such a distinct advantage."