Awards and recognition

Precision oncology research at UBC boosted by partnership with Terry Fox Research Institute

Dr. Marco Marra (Michael Smith Laboratories, Department of Medical Genetics)

A new partnership between UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories and the Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) will help advance the work of Dr. Marco Marra, a leading expert on cancer cell genomics at the single-cell level. His research aims to reveal key characteristics of cancers such as pediatric acute myeloid leukemia, glioblastoma (an aggressive form of brain cancer), and cervical cancer.

This new partnership stems from the TFRI’s national focus on precision oncology and the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network, an initiative which connects research teams across the country for the advancement of precision medicine, and in which Dr. Marra plays an integral role.

Dr. Marra has established himself as a leader in the field of genomics, following his initial contributions nearly 30 years ago as a participant in the Human Genome Project. In addition to his work with the Network, he now leads the TFRI’s BC node, holds a Canada Research Chair in Genome Science, and is a faculty member at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. To support his incredible leadership in Canadian genomics research, he will be taking up the new role of Terry Fox Leader in Cancer Genome Science, awarded to him by the TFRI.

“When the late Dr. Michael Smith, who won the Nobel Prize, recruited Dr. Marra back from the United States I don’t think even he imagined how impactful Marco would be in accelerating cancer genomic analysis in Canada,” notes Jim Woodgett, President and Scientific Director of the Terry Fox Research Institute. “We are exceptionally proud to partner with UBC in supporting Dr. Marra with this award and know that his work will lead to faster and more effective treatments for cancer in BC, Canada and the world.”

Support for research like Dr. Marra’s is increasingly important as the field of genome science expands to include a focus on single-cell studies. This expansion comes from considering the instability of cancer cell genomes, and how they are prone to frequent mutation. These mutations can lead to heterogeneity, which can be thought of as communities of cells with varying characteristics that can exist within cancerous tumours. A cancer, then, is likely to be made of many different types of cells that can have different genetic characteristics, and possibly different responses to treatment. This can explain why a patient might relapse after treatment, or why a treatment that works for one patient doesn’t work for another.

“We need to understand the individual genetic characteristics associated with cancer cells to rationally treat cancer,” explains Dr. Marra (Michael Smith Laboratories, Department of Medical Genetics). “That’s the idea underpinning precision cancer medicine.”

Dr. Marra is now exploring how a single-cell precision medicine approach could be implemented in practice through the Personalized Onco-Genomics (POG) Program that he has co-led for the past 12 years, and which is part of the TFRI’s Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network.

In this program, “bulk” genomics, in which all the cancer cells are combined and sequenced together, has been used to analyze almost 2,000 patient tumours to identify cancer cell vulnerabilities that can potentially be targeted using existing drugs. These cancer cell vulnerabilities are then shared with clinicians for consideration when planning treatment.

With its heavy focus on genomic data processing, the POG Program is ideal for testing new ideas and technologies aimed at improving treatment decision making. Dr. Marra will be able to leverage these capabilities through this new support from the TFRI, with the goal of transforming cancer treatment within BC and beyond.

“Genomics is wonderfully suited to many cancer research initiatives and to cancer care, and investments in genomics are yielding new insights in both research and care settings,” emphasizes Marra. “I’m deeply appreciative of the TFRI’s support, and their belief in our research and our shared goal of working towards the future of precision cancer medicine.”

In a very general sense, Dr. Marra likens his single-cell research to using a “very fancy microscope” to find the “kryptonite that destroys individual super cells.” In practice, however, this research process is extremely complex, and requires support from agencies like the TFRI as well as collaboration with other researchers and clinicians.

“This partnership with the Terry Fox Research Institute underscores the value of collaborative, interdisciplinary research enabled by the Michael Smith Laboratories, bringing together researchers from across disciplines to find solutions that can make real differences in the lives of patients,” highlights Dr. Martin Hirst (Director, Michael Smith Laboratories). “We’re extremely thankful to be partnering with the TFRI, and look forward to seeing the continued impact of Dr. Marra’s research on the field of genomics and precision cancer medicine.”