Atlantic Canadians deserve better cancer treatment options, writes cancer group

Apr 25th, 2022

Dr. Sherri Christian, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science; Dr. Sevtap Savas & Dr. Sheila Drover, Faculty of Medicine; Dr. Neetu Singh, Atlantic Cancer Consortium

The most recent estimates predicts that almost 45 per cent of Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives.

Atlantic Canadians have one of the highest risks of dying from cancer in Canada. Every year, around 7,000 Atlantic Canadians die of cancer.

Sadly, around 1,600 of these annual cancer deaths are from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Research is, therefore, critical to address the effects of cancer on this region’s population.

Specifically, research that can deliver more personalized and effective treatments with fewer side-effects, as opposed to a one-size fits-all treatment.

This is called precision medicine.

Diverse and multidisciplinary expertise

With the tremendous financial support by the Terry Fox Research Institute and other funders, researchers and clinicians from three Atlantic Provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – came together to form the Marathon of Hope Atlantic Cancer Consortium (MoH ACC) in 2021.

This consortium focuses on precision medicine and consists of more than 60 investigators with diverse experience and multidisciplinary expertise.

“The consortium uses the talents and experience of local investigators and was able to recruit new trainees.”

Their expertise includes critical fields such as molecular biology, immunology, genetics, epidemiology, bioinformatics, computational biology, pathology, and medical, radiation, and surgical oncology.

There are extensive partnerships between scientists and clinicians in order to effectively conduct research that will make a difference in patient health outcomes. The consortium uses the talents and experience of local investigators and was able to recruit new trainees to the region.

High incidence of lung and colorectal cancer

The MoH ACC is currently halfway through its two-year pilot phase. This phase aimed to establish the consortium, form the teams and start critical projects, specifically on lung and colorectal cancers that have high incidence in the region.

The five main teams are the biobank teams (N.L., N.S., and N.B.), whose primary interest is to collect and store patient and tumor biospecimen and data for research purposes; the bioinformatics team, whose primary interest is to secure the collected and generated data and provide support for large scale data analysis; the training team, whose primary interest is to provide training opportunities and fellowship for next generation cancer researchers and clinicians; the colorectal cancer teams, whose primary interest is to investigate the molecular, genetic and immunological features of the colorectal tumors and patients, and study the use of liquid biopsies to monitor patients through a simple blood draw; and the lung cancer teams, whose primary interest is to improve delivery and access to treatment regardless of the location of the patient and to study the use of liquid biopsies in these patients.

Almost all of these projects rely on and use the biospecimen and data from cancer patients recruited to the MoH ACC biobanks in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

Successful growth

Despite the hiccups and delays created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the MoH ACC has been successfully building. MoH ACC is also growing.

The next step for the consortium is to join the national Terry Fox Research Institute’s Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network as a designated consortium.

A recent call for research projects has already attracted many projects/new teams from Atlantic Canada to more than double the number of cancer types they are studying.

“The MoH ACC aims to contribute … through high-quality cancer research and extensive collaborations.”

This is a significant opportunity to conduct bigger studies and form further collaborations, all with the aim of helping more Canadians affected by cancer.

Atlantic Canadians deserve better cancer treatment options and conditions to deal with cancer’s effects on themselves, their families, and health-care systems.

The MoH ACC aims to contribute to this aim through high-quality cancer research and extensive collaborations among the regional experts and centres.

Inclusion of local expertise in MoH ACC has been critical in understanding the needs of the population and health-care systems, and identifying feasible mechanisms to conduct successful studies that will benefit Atlantic Canadians.

The MoH ACC offers a unique, vibrant, and multidisciplinary scientific environment that trains talented next-generation scientists and medical professionals.

Training local cancer research and medical expertise is important, as it helps build the much needed capacity in Atlantic Canada, so that we can effectively address the many cancer-related issues our population will face in the future.

Over time, the dedication of this consortium and the work of its members will help bring much needed and effective cancer control and treatment options to Atlantic Canadians.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding for the Newfoundland and Labrador portion of the project from the Memorial University and the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Industry, Energy and Technology. We particularly thank the patients who generously donate their biospecimen to the MoH ACC biobanks and make the research possible.