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Precision medicine

Marathon of Hope cancer network bringing hope to cancer patients

Campus and Community

By Modeline Longjohn

As cancer researchers and clinicians, we know that three of the most common questions people ask when faced with a cancer diagnosis have to do with their treatment options.

What will the treatment consist of? How will it affect their quality of life? Will it be effective?

Sadly, we’re often forced to answer this third question with the three words our patients don’t want to hear: We don’t know.

Works for some, not others

We don’t know because all cancers are different, and each person reacts differently to treatment.

Take colorectal cancer, for instance. This cancer, which is one of the most prevalent in Atlantic Canada, has a treatment protocol based on whether there is evidence of cancer spread. But while this protocol works for some people, for others it doesn’t.

For a long time, we didn’t know why this happened, but luckily this is starting to change. Technological advances in genomic sequencing and medical imaging are helping us to better understand the similarities and differences that exist among cancer patients with the same diagnosed disease and, as a result, the varied responses to treatment.

“Each [cancer genome] interacts with our bodies uniquely and responds differently to treatment.”

We now know, for example, that there are several subtypes of colorectal cancer (and of many other cancers for that matter) that are caused by different mutations in the cancer genome. Each type interacts with our bodies uniquely and responds differently to treatment.

This breakthrough is changing the way we understand cancer today and helping us to better individualize treatment. It is also helping us predict who will benefit from certain treatments and who won’t, allowing us to adjust treatments accordingly.

This is leading to increased cancer survivorship and is improving the quality of life of patients diagnosed with this deadly disease, creating new hope for all.

This is what we call precision medicine, and we believe it is the medicine of the future.

Help for Atlantic Canadians

The Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres network, launched in St. John’s on April 12 by the Terry Fox Research Institute and its national and regional partners, is helping to make precision medicine a reality for Canadians.

Inspired by Terry Fox’s legacy, cancer centres from coast to coast to coast are joining forces to create this network.

The network will match a $150-million investment over the next five years from the federal government to connect cancer research institutions across Canada. It will allow them to share large amounts of data analyzed with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence infrastructure to pinpoint the similarities and differences that exist among cancer patients.

This will help identify the “Achilles’ heel” of each person’s disease and match them to the most appropriate treatment.

Uniting resources and expertise

In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, a total of 40 researchers and clinicians at provincial cancer hospitals and cancer research institutions are now working together to form the Atlantic Cancer Consortium (ACC) and become a member of the national Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres network.

“We believe the ACC is an extremely exciting initiative that will help solve problems that are unique to our region.”

This new partnership will allow us to unite our resources and expertise to advance precision medicine. It will also help us to create the infrastructure and methods needed to find new and better ways to treat our cancer patients.

As clinicians and researchers who work in Atlantic Canada, we believe the ACC is an extremely exciting initiative that will help solve problems that are unique to our region.

During the ACC’s two year pilot project phase, we aim to find new ways to tackle two of the most prevalent cancers in our provinces — colorectal and lung cancer — while also developing a new infrastructure that will improve the collection and analysis of biological specimens, precision medicine training for the next generation of cancer researchers and data sharing within the ACC and with other network members.

This is exactly what is needed to make precision medicine a reality.

Right treatment, right time

Through this new national network, we will form linkages that will allow cancer patients across our region to access the expertise of the entire network (first regionally, then nationally) regardless of where they are, so they can receive the right treatment at the right time for their particular type of cancer.

As technology develops and this partnership grows, we envision a day when patients could get their blood drawn in their local health clinic for screening, diagnosis or monitoring of their cancer, all without leaving their home community.

This vision, which for years seemed like part of a distant future, is now one step closer to becoming a reality for patients across Atlantic Canada, and we are proud to be making it happen.

Signatories include Dr. Michael R. Johnston (Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia), Dr. Sherri Christian, (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador), Dr. John Thoms (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador), Dr. Stephen M. Lewis (Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, New Brunswick), Dr. Tony Reiman (Horizon’s Saint John Regional Hospital, New Brunswick), Dr. Robin Urquhart (Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia), Dr. Kara Laing (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador), Dr. Sidney E. Croul (Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia), Dr. Daniel Gaston (Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia), Dr. Gerry Johnston (Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute), Dr. Sheila Drover (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador).

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