Personalized cancer care gets $3-million boost

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VANCOUVER – After being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, Jennifer Strack became convinced that even as someone who’d never smoked, she would soon die.

When the usual treatments failed, doctors with the BC Cancer Agency proposed a drug that would not have been offered under standard protocols.

A year ago, Strack joined a “highly experimental” program, which received $3 million in funding Tuesday from the British Columbia government.

After she started taking one pill daily, a chest X-ray showed a tumour on Strack’s left lung had shrunk considerably.

“This drug is a growth blocker and we were only expecting to see that (the tumour) hadn’t grown,” Strack, 41, told a news conference Tuesday. “We were on Cloud 9 and hope continued to grow.”

Premier Christy Clark joined Strack and her doctors to announce the province will invest money in the program aimed at identifying and treating highly challenging cancer cases.

The program, called Personalized Onco-Genomics, uses advanced genome sequencing to customize therapy for patients suffering from aggressive forms of cancer.

The technique decodes the genetic makeup of patients’ tumours, helping doctors identify the most effective potential drug treatments instead of general therapies that may provide little or no benefit.

Clark said someone’s genomic map is like a big novel, packed with dense information.

“Doctors can go through that 50,000-page novel and find one error on page 3,000,” she said. “Not only can they find it, but they can fix it without eradicating other genes around it.”

Doctors with the BC Cancery Agency believe they are unlocking the mysteries of cancer, but note the treatments are a first for cancer care and that the long-term outcomes are unknown.

The new funding is slated to ramp up the program from 350 patients to about 2,000 over the next two years, with plans to help thousands more in the coming five years, Dr. Janessa Laskin said.

She said each patient is considered a personalized clinical trial and that results will help doctors better understand the technology and apply what they learn to treat more cases.

About 3,000 people in British Columbia are expected to be diagnosed with new cases of cancer over the next 10 years.

The BC Cancer Agency launched clinical trials of the program in 2012, and more than 350 patients representing 50 types of cancer have enrolled so far.