Celebrating 20 years of patient-focused cancer research
By Allison Flynn
Twenty years ago the Marjorie and Gerald Bronfman Family Foundation made a generous gift to McGill that laid the groundwork for what would become one of Canada’s top clinical cancer research hubs: The Gerald Bronfman Centre for Clinical Research in Oncology. This year, the Centre will be celebrating 20 years of patient-focused research, the generosity and vision of the Bronfman Family and all of the lives saved and touched by its seminal work. The Reporter recently met with the Centre’s Director, Eduardo Franco, to talk about its past, its impressive research milestones and its bright future.
You’re a very busy man – gearing up for anniversary events while running the Centre and your own cancer epidemiology division …
Yes, there’s a lot going on this year. We have the 20-year celebration of the Bronfman Centre that we’re launching now with a lecture series. It’s a symposium that is to be held every year in celebration of the accomplishments of the Gerald Bronfman Centre. This year’s theme is on cancer control with guest speaker Dr. Simon Sutcliffe followed by a panel discussion with Drs. Michel Tremblay and Michael Pollak, two McGill champions on the topic of cancer control and prevention. The symposium will be followed by a celebration of the Centre’s milestones.
And for the first time in the history of the Dept. of Oncology, there will be an awards ceremony. We have three Lifetime Achievement Awards being given to our most prominent members in honour of their outstanding work in clinical cancer care.
How did the Centre get started?
The Bronfmans had personal experiences with cancer in their family. Forward-looking as they are, they saw the opportunity to fight this disease. They looked at McGill’s strength in the field and in 1990 a generous gift from the family provided the impetus to create the first department of oncology in Canada. In 1992, a second gift from the Foundation created this Centre.
What goes on there?
The Centre’s the hub for the Dept. of Oncology. Aside from the clinical research program, which is the original component of the Dept. of Oncology, there’s the administration of the department. Then there’s my division, the Division of Cancer Epidemiology, and three other clinical research divisions, namely, Cancer Genetics, Nutrition and Rehabilitation and Whole Person Care. Most of the Department’s activities are held in point-of-care places like the hospitals, but the management of the research is physically done out of the Centre.
And it’s all clinical research?
Yes, clinical in the sense of patient care and cancer prevention and screening.
How has cancer research changed over the last 20 years?
Cancer, the group of diseases, is becoming more and more chronic. Patients are surviving longer. We’ve had major strides in treatments for a number of cancers. Breast cancer’s a good example. Prostate cancer as well. Even cancers that were, just a decade ago, bad news for patients, there are treatments that prolong lives and improve the quality of life for those who survive. McGill has also been very prominent in cancer prevention research in a number of units – discovering biomarkers and providing a better risk assessment for individuals so that they can better gauge their cancer risk and so that their physicians can provide more tailored approaches to decrease their risk of developing cancer.
Then, there are things we can do via intervention. McGill has played a major role in the discoveries around HPV. My own unit has been involved with this. And other departments at McGill have been involved in testing and clinically validating the vaccine against HPV that is already being used across Canada in preventing cervical cancer.
There are basic science discoveries that will also, ultimately, translate to benefits for cancer risk reduction and better treatments. In partnership with the Goodman and Segal Cancer Research Centres, the Department has achieved so much in terms of discoveries involving targeted therapies to prevent cancer.
What are some of the Centre’s big discoveries?
Specifically for the Clinical Research Program, it has been a tremendous platform for the investigation for new drugs and new treatments in cancer care. There have been enormous accomplishments. There was Letrozole for breast cancer – from the initiation of the trial in the mid-90s all the way to drug approval a few years later. Herceptin is another example of an important treatment for breast cancer. Several of these trials have been examples of milestones of success in the history of the Clinical Research Program at McGill. It has been a team effort by many individuals and I’m very proud to be a part of that.
What does the future hold?
More of the same. More discoveries.
A lot of what comes out of these bench and bedside studies – being from basic science all the way to clinical research – sometimes come from serendipitous findings that spin off and lead to a tangent of new discoveries and new threads of activities that bring rewards. Some of these sidetracks may not be fruitful, but some are high-payoff.
We’re going towards an era of personalized medicine. The discoveries that have come to the fore in the last few years involve tailoring therapies to individuals rather than to groups of individuals. The discoveries in genomics now point to signatures that can be correlated to how certain cancers will be sensitive to a given drug, or not. So, knowing the genetic signature of a particular tumour tissue will eventually allow doctors to tailor therapies.
We also have discoveries with respect to how genetic markers of immune response will lead a person’s response to say, the HPV vaccine. Or, again in the area of cervical cancer research, whether there are particular biomarkers in a Pap test that would place a patient at high risk of lesion progression. We can be more aggressive with that patient. We’ll see her every year and not every three. All of this under the umbrella of being more specific in characterizing risk for these patients, or in the case of treatment, characterizing their clinical risk and giving them better therapies.
Essentially, more prevention and higher survival rates…
Yes. And hopefully, less cancer.
For more details on Anniversary events, please visit: http://publications.mcgill.ca/medenews/