The province of British Columbia is pledging $3 million to cancer genomics research that could help provide thousands of people with personalized treatment.

"We are going to change lives around the world," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, whose mother died of brain cancer and grandmother died of lung cancer.

"Imagine a future for someone you know who's diagnosed with cancer ... Where you are able to tell someone, you have cancer and we're going to make sure you get cured."

Cancer genomics, or onco-genomics, involves identifying the gene mutations which are driving a patient's cancer, in hopes of developing personalized — and more effective — treatment.

'I had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.' - Jen Strack, cancer patient

Dr. Janessa Laskin, medical oncologist and senior scientist at the BC Cancer Agency, says personalized onco-genomics (POG) has had "tremendous success" so far — but only in a small proportion of patients, where target genes have been identified.

"When we have a target and we have a drug it works really well," she said. "The question is, how do we find targets in all other cancer patients?"

According to Laskin, there have only ever been 10,000 cancers sequenced in the whole world. 

But the onco-genomics team in B.C. now has the capacity to examine 20,000 genes and sequence 6,000 cancers every year, more than anywhere else in the world, she said.

The new funding will go to the BC Cancer Foundation, which supports the agency, the POG program and high priority cancer projects to help expand the program and identify more of those cancers. 

It adds to $2 million already provided to the foundation to support breast cancer research, and Clark says more funding for POG treatments could be forthcoming in future.

'I'm living proof that there is hope'

Jen Strack, one of the patients successfully treated in the POG program, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer at age 41 in 2013, despite being a non-smoker.

"I shouldn't be standing here today… I was convinced by the statistics that I wouldn't live very long," she said.

After a year of treatment which had very little effect, Strack was given a chance to join the POG program. She jumped at the chance.

"I had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain."

After gene testing, she was eventually given a drug that she would never have been given under standard procedure.

After taking one pill daily over the following months, Strack's tumours shrunk considerably and some of smallest ones were no longer detectable.

"We were on cloud nine. This drug is giving me my life back," she said. "Hope now isn't just a word. I'm living proof that there is hope and it's spelled POG."

Highly selective process for patients

So far more than 350 people have received personalized cancer treatment, said Laskin. Those patients have been through a highly selective process.

To be eligible, patients must:

  • Have a form of incurable cancer.
  • Have metastatic cancer (spreading to other organs).
  • Have received a small amount of chemotherapy.
  • Be otherwise fit and well.
  • Live and be treated in B.C.
  • Be willing to undergo experimental treatment.

Patients in the program undergo a biopsy to retrieve the cells needed for testing and their DNA and RNA are sequenced. 

A team of about 50 people then meet to figure out what is driving that person's cancer and whether a drug is available that could be used to target it.

The process takes about 12 weeks.

Treating 'remarkable' number of people

Laskin said in around 10 per cent of cases, oncologists had thought the patient had one type of cancer, but after testing it was revealed to be completely different.

Dr Janessa Laskin, Medical Oncologist and Senior Scientist at the BC Cancer Agency

Dr Janessa Laskin, with the BC Cancer Agency, says Personalized Onco-Genomics (POG) has had "tremendous success" so far. (CBC)

"We have been able to treat a remarkable number of people with treatments we never would have given to them otherwise," said Laskin.

Over the next 10 years, Greg D'Avignon, chair of the BC Cancer Foundation, expects 300,000 British Columbians to be diagnosed with cancer. The POG program in B.C. will expand to treat 2,000 people over the next five years.

While they have had some success, said Laskin, they are not looking at a cure just yet.

"We're not curing people at the moment … For me success is finding a tolerable drug that will manage cancer over a longer period of time."