BC Doctor Pioneers a New Approach to Cancer Treatment

Here’s how one patient’s simple question led to a revolutionary new treatment.

A clinical research trial in British Columbia is changing the way scientists think about the future of cancer care. It’s called Personalized OncoGenomics (POG) and the idea behind the trial was inspired by a special patient.

Dr. Janessa Laskin, one of the co-founders of the trial, is a medical oncologist. One of her patients had metastatic cancer. When she prescribed a treatment regime, he asked her one simple question: Why? “I said because historically that’s what we try for your cancer,” she told David Suzuki in her interview for the documentary Cracking Cancer on The Nature of Things.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Janessa Laskin on The Current

Traditionally, cancer treatment is based on the location in the body. “We don’t know whether [treatments] will work,” she said. “We can’t explain when they do or don’t work.”

Dr. Laskin and the patient also encountered each other when the technology used to sequence a person’s genome was going through a revolution. “It was like a perfect storm,” she said.

The idea was born: If they could understand what bits of a person’s genome are ‘broken’ and allowing the cancer cells to grow, then they could tailor treatment to each individual.

Witnessing Cancer Patients’ Most Private Moments

But it takes a lot of time and a lot of computer power to generate such large amounts of data. Currently, the process can take up to three months. “It’s a game of significant numbers,” said Dr. Marco Marra, one of the world’s leading genome scientists and co-founder of the trial. Thanks to an evolution of the genome sequencing technology, there are more opportunities to use it in medical care.

The team sequenced the genome of Dr. Laskin’s patient’s cancer and found a gene mutation that allowed the cancer to grow. Dr. Laskin gave him a drug to help slow that process down. “I was able to give him a less toxic treatment because it was targeted towards a particular cellular driver as opposed to giving him a huge amount of very toxic chemotherapy,” she said.

It was the first published case that used a patients’ genome to guide treatment. And the drug helped control Dr. Laskin’s patient’s cancer for 10 months.

The real question is whether her personalized treatment was better than another route. “Each person is only treated once with one thing, so it’s hard to prove in a traditional fashion,” she said. “I think it also made an emotional difference for him, because he felt more confident that what we were doing made sense biologically.”

While POG is “cutting edge and very exciting”, she said, it’s still very experimental. “I think we’ve been naive in thinking that cancer is one disease. I think that cancer is hundreds or maybe thousands of diseases.”

According to Dr. Laskin, while we may never be able to cure cancer entirely, she hopes that within her career lifetime, cancer will become a chronic disease that can be managed comfortably with tolerable treatments. 

Learn more about POG in the documentary Cracking Cancer on The Nature of Things.


Available on CBC Gem

Cracking Cancer

Nature of Things