Toronto gets lead role in huge cancer project

TheStar,com – – Toronto gets lead role in huge cancer project
April 30, 2008. Megan Ogilvie

More than any other time in this city’s history, world-class scientists are flocking to our labs en masse with the hope of cracking medical mysteries.

Yesterday, Ontario researchers announced they will take a lead role with the International Cancer Genome Consortium, one of the largest global research efforts since the Human Genome Project. Within 10 years, the consortium plans to map the genetic mutations that drive 50 of the most common cancers.
Delving into cancer genomes will help scientists understand the complex biological mechanisms that cause cancers to grow and spread

Experts say it will likely lead to new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent the disease.

And just last week, a Toronto-led team of stem cell scientists reported a critical breakthrough towards one day using stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue.
Many of the city’s top scientists, from oncologists to statisticians, stem cell whizzes to genome experts, have been recruited to Toronto within the last two years. They have come from big city hospitals, Ivy League institutions and international research hubs.

And they say Toronto has become a magnet for the best because of new government money earmarked for innovation, a collegial atmosphere among colleagues, and a critical mass of scientists that lures others to tricked-out labs stacked along University Ave.

“There are, I think, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 researchers in the biomedical field here,” said Dr. John McPherson, director of the cancer genome program at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and himself a new recruit. “There are 5,000 labs within a 20-minute walk of OICR. . . . There are some other places like this in the world, but they are very few.”

McPherson, who landed in Toronto in July from Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, will lead the province’s plan to map the genetic mutations involved in pancreatic cancer. While another recruit, Dr. Lincoln Stein, a world leader in genome informatics, will lead from Toronto the consortium’s data coordination centre — predicted to be the largest health informatics database in the world.

“There is a real collaborative spirit here that I haven’t seen in other places,” said McPherson about Toronto’s research community. “It’s this collaboration that really drives research these days.”

The scientists involved with the International Cancer Genome Consortium
say a combined global assault on cancer is the best way to halt the world’s leading killer. Last year, more than 7.5 million people worldwide died of the disease and more than 12 million new cases were diagnosed.

Cataloguing the genetic mutations involved in 50 types of cancer is too large a project to be undertaken by one country alone, said Dr. Tom Hudson, president and scientific director of OICR and an executive member of the consortium’s interim executive committee.

The 10-year project will generate 25,000 times more data than the Human Genome Project, said Hudson, who was involved in leading that landmark project.

Not only will the consortium boost understanding of how different cancers grow, Hudson said it may also help pinpoint environmental factors, including viruses, that contribute to cancers.

Research organizations that join the consortium sign on to study one specific type of cancer and must contribute at least $20 million to sequence 500 unique samples. Members must also agree to rapidly release data to the public and not make intellectual property claims on their findings.
Ten countries have already enlisted, including China, France, Japan, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. Hudson expects others to join soon.

Researchers from India which has higher rates of oral cancers, will tackle that particular cancer type. The U.S. has agreed to look at lung cancer, among others.

Hudson said Ontario researchers wanted to tackle the “very tough” pancreatic cancer. “It has improved the least in its survival rates in the last 20 years and the mortality rate is very high, close to 98 per cent.”
McPherson, who will head up the project, said sequencing pancreatic cancer will uncover the early stages of the disease.

And, he added, it may also reveal why pancreatic cancer cells are resistant to chemotherapy.

“The DNA in all tumours is different than the DNA of the normal tissue next to it,” he said. “We’re trying to catalogue all of those variants to see what is different about the tissue. From that we can hopefully determine what is the mechanism that causes the cancer.”

In 2005, the Ontario government launched OICR with a five-year, $347-million budget to speed up cancer research from the lab to bedside. And recently the institute pledged $30 millio n to help build the cancer genomics atlas.

Speaking at MaRS yesterday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty committed $10 million over the next decade to the consortium.

“Competition was fierce,” said McGuinty, noting Ontario was the only “sub-national” jurisdiction competing to work on the massive undertaking.

Toronto is now North America’s fourth-largest biomedical research centre and the sector is growing by 18 per cent each year.

Today’s announcement means Ontario will remain at the forefront of cancer research and that’s good news for families. One in three Ontarians are now being diagnosed with cancer. One in four Ontarians are dying of cancer,” he said.

Some of the $10 million will go towards storing and organizing the massive amounts of data generated by the consortium.

“We need one large data set that researchers can mine for relationships among many distinct types of cancers, rather than a hundred small, unconnected databases that disguise the commonality among the information,” Stein said.

“It is very powerful to put the information together in an integrated way because you can start to see relationships between cancers.”

With files from Robert Benzie, Health Reporter

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