In 2013, actress Angelina Jolie made headlines when she underwent a preventative double mastectomy to reduce her chances of getting cancer. She made this difficult decision because of a family history of cancer (she lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer) and because she carries an inherited gene mutation (the BRCA1 gene) – which altogether gave her a 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer. The question is: How come having the BRCA1 gene does not translate into a 100% chance of getting cancer?
The reason is that a gene can only give cancer if it produces a protein. It is the protein, not the gene, that actually drives tumour growth and resistance to therapies, and it is the proteins that are the actual targets of anti-cancer therapies. This means that being able to analyze proteins, as well as genes, is vital if we are to advance treatments and ultimately find a cure for this terrible disease. That's where the new field of proteomics comes in and where your continued support does make a huge difference.
Proteomics provides us with the means to predict whether a patient will survive and how he or she might respond to medication. We can then determine very quickly and accurately which proteins in a given tumour should be targeted. This allows us to devise personalized treatments that are most likely to be effective for each individual patient. Combined with the fact that proteins can be detected not only in blood and urine, but also in saliva and tears, or directly in the biopsies, this opens up the possibility for much easier and quicker early detection and diagnosis – when intervention is most successful.
Proteomics can also be used to monitor disease progression and medication efficacy in real time, contributing to the prevention of overdoses and adverse effects, and allowing us to modify the treatment as a tumour evolves. It could also help in determining whether a patient will suffer a relapse, allowing preventative measures to be taken as early as possible.
Just a few years ago, before the technology to put proteomics into practice became available, choosing the best treatment was a gamble. Chemotherapy would be administered to all patients, but only a few would really benefit. Indeed, the standard treatment given to patients with cancer would prove ineffective or even toxic in as many as 75% of the cases. By contrast, with proteomics, each patient will receive therapy that is based on and tailored to his or her unique characteristics. This means that the treatment is likely to be more effective and, as importantly, that patients will be spared from having to undergo treatments that will not work and might have adverse effects that could reduce their quality of life.
Proteomics is definitely the next great revolution in medical diagnostics and treatment. It will benefit all our patients, regardless of age, gender and ethnicity. Being able to understand the nature of proteins will have a positive impact not only on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but also for many other diseases, including neurodegenerative illnesses (Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease), autoimmune diseases (Multiple Sclerosis, pernicious anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, Type I diabetes, etc.), heart disease, and more. Better still, thanks to your support, the JGH is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in harnessing the power of proteomics and delivering its benefits to patients provincially and nationally in the shortest time possible.
I have a reputation for getting things done. I am not a researcher, but I am the person who knows how to set up and run a lab smoothly. I am proud of the fact that the JGH Core Lab, which conducts vital diagnostic evaluations of all body fluids and tissues from patients, is considered one of the best in Canada if not the world in terms of cost effectiveness. That being said, starting a high caliber proteomics laboratory from the ground up is impossible for me to do alone. It requires a multidisciplinary team, with specialized skills and advanced training in many different fields. Such a lab also requires links to other institutions and researchers across the world for data sharing and knowledge transfer. You also need a lot of novel, costly technologies and a specially designed space to deploy them.
Your support proved decisive by empowering us to recruit Dr. Christoph Borchers as the Segal Family Chair in Molecular Oncology in 2015. Dr. Borchers is the Director of the University of Victoria - Genome BC Proteomics Centre and a world authority in proteomics. His arrival has transformed the JGH and McGill University into a central hub for the first pan-Canadian proteomics program.
Now the stage is set to make great progress in the development of new diagnostic tools and innovative, targeted therapies for cancer and, ultimately, many other diseases. Our plan is to have a proteomics program running at the JGH and to begin treating certain cancers within two to three years at most. Your continued support is what will allow us to make this happen.
Our main priority is space. We've got 16,000 square feet ready to be renovated and redesigned in order to accommodate the mass spectrometry machines that are used to detect and quantify proteins. The next step is to purchase eight of these machines. In the longer term, having a full-time person at the JGH Test Centre asking for samples from patients so that we can build a large bio-bank for analysis is also an important goal.
The question is not whether proteomics is coming to the JGH but when. Your contribution combined with those of other caring individuals will help accelerate the pace of development and allow patients to benefit from improved diagnosis and therapy that much more quickly. It will empower us to save lives, eliminate suffering and preserve the quality of life of many patients. Please renew and extend your support for the JGH today. Thank you.
Yours very truly,
Dr. Elizabeth MacNamara
Chief of the Department of Diagnostic Medicine
Jewish General Hospital
p.s. Your gift, whether small or big, will have a huge impact. $100 will help pay for the analysis of one protein from one person and that protein could hold the key to saving that person's life. $50 will help us start analyzing the large bank of saliva specimens of patients with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease that was collected by the JGH Dentistry Department over the years. This is a golden opportunity to make a difference. Please take a moment right now to make a donation and give as generously as you can in support of the Jewish General Hospital.