The Current

Clinical trial aims to crack cancer code using genome sequencing

It won't work for everyone but a trial underway in Vancouver to sequence the genomes of individual cancers is offering new information on how cancer treatment may be evolving. The Current speaks to the doctor leading the clinical work on this idea.

Cracking Cancer – Miracle

6 years ago
Duration 0:46
Dr. Howard Lim put his patient on a drug that ended up drastically shrinking her cancer.

Read story transcript

Dr. Janessa Laskin's first contact with using genetic information to treat cancer came in 2009 when a patient of hers suggested giving it a try.

Laskin tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that her patient was a doctor, with a rare and complicated cancer who was aware of a new technology that allowed genome sequencing.

"One person can challenge the way that you think. This case coincided with a technological advance that made this thinking possible." 
'We try to balance giving people hope with the reality of what they're dealing with,' Dr. Janessa Laskin, co-founder of the POG trial. (CBC/Nature of Things)

Today, Laskin is the clinical lead on an experimental clinical trial at the BC Cancer Agency called POG or Personalized OncoGenomics. It is sequencing the genome of patients with untreatable metastatic cancer, collecting the largest database of these cancers in the world.

Once they determine what is driving the cancer, researchers scour the literature to see if there is a drug that might block the driver of that particular cancer.

The clincical trial is the subject of a documentary airing Feb. 23, on CBC TV's The Nature of Things called Cracking Cancer

For some patients in the trial, the sequencing of the genome has lead to treatments that seem to show dramatic results.

Zuri Scrivens was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer six years ago. The traditional treatments worked at first, but months later the cancer came back. 

Scrivens joined the POG trial and her testing showed a protein that can be blocked by a drug commonly used in people with diabetes. After taking that drug, along with the conventional hormone therapy, her cancer disappeared on all of her scans and has stayed away for five years. 

Finding successful treatments is just one part of the research says Laskin.

"We're delighted that it helped this information but more important for us is to figure out how do we use our experience with Zuri to go forward and find other people like this we can help." 

 Zuri's results aren't typical.

"We are talking about aggressive metastatic cancers here — we don't hit a home run with everybody," Laskin tells Tremonti.

Facts About Cancer

  • Cancer is responsible for 30% of all deaths in Canada.
  • 2 out of 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetimes.
  • 1 in 4 will die from cancer.
  • New Canadian cancer cases are expected to increase 40 per cent over the next 15 years.
Laskin says the dream is to catalogue as many as 100,000 metastatic cancers  — she says that information could revolutionize the approach to cancer treatment. 
'We are there at arguably the most desperate time at patients's lives and we need some hope too and I think research is how we find that,' says Dr. Laskin. (CBC)

"We know when we give a targetted treatment to a patient, we can buy people years. That is so worth it." 

Laskin is hoping this research will lead to cancer being considered a chronic, treatable condition that people can live with for years.

"Of course I want to say that we're going to cure cancer but I don't imagine that's going to happen in my lifetime or my career," laments Laskin.

"I would love to be wrong about that."

Right now, the trial is only accepting patients from B.C. But Laskin says she hopes it can expand to other provinces and the information they gather is being shared internationally.

Questions about the program can be sent to:

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.