The numbers are jarring—every year, hundreds of thousands of Canadians are diagnosed with cancer, and around 80,000 will die from it. The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is home to some of the leading oncologists in the country, and they’re changing the face of cancer. From non-invasive liquid biopsy to testing cancer treatments on a lab-grown tumor, the MUHC’s cancer experts are blurring the lines between reality and science fiction, signalling that the future of cancer care is here. The MUHC Foundation’s Dream Big: End Cancer campaign is raising $35M to fund these researchers as they make breakthroughs in precision oncology, the game changer that will end cancer as a life-threatening disease.

Dr. Julia Burnier (centre), Scientist at the RI-MUHC and the Cancer Research Program, and her research team

Dr. Julia Burnier (centre), Scientist at the RI-MUHC and the Cancer Research Program, and her research team

From ovarian cancer, dubbed the silent killer, to lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, the MUHC and the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC) is pioneering groundbreaking advancements across various areas of cancer research. End Cancer is empowering the MUHC’s experts to focus on what’s important: pioneering new and personalized cancer treatments, providing compassionate patient care, and ensuring that patients not only survive, but thrive post-treatment.

“What makes the cancer research program at the MUHC so special is our multi-disciplinary approach. We’re leading cutting-edge research with input from world-class researchers across different specialties. From early diagnosis, to targeted therapies and surgical treatment, it’s a team effort and we work hard to ensure a holistic approach that attacks the cancer from every direction, every step of the way.” — Dr. Yen-I Chen, Gastroenterologist and Researcher at the MUHC’s Cancer Research Program

The biggest challenge presented by cancer is that there are more than 200 variations of the disease, so treatment is never one-size-fits-all. To address this complex issue, the MUHC houses a rich biobank of cancer tissues that serve as a critical resource for researchers, who can ‘borrow’ these samples to learn more about their genetic make-up and understand what they’re up against. Think of the biobank as a library for cancer researchers, with every sample unlocking a world of secrets, and shedding light on possible treatments that will save lives.

The literary references don’t end there. The RI-MUHC’s researchers are spearheading projects that sound like they’re part of a science fiction novel. They’re using cancer cells to grow tumours in the lab, and testing cancer treatments outside the body, enabling them to observe just how the cancer responds. After all, the first step in personalized medicine is to understand your cancer, and what it responds to.

“Our goal as cancer researchers is to provide world-class cancer care, and treatments that are as unique as each patient,” says Dr. Peter Metrakos, Cancer Research Program Leader at the RI-MUHC.

Dr. Metrakos’ research focuses on cancer that has metastasized to the liver. He has already identified several pathways by which the cancer can spread, and is focused on creating targeted therapies that will prevent the tumor from growing.

“If you look at breast cancer for instance, thanks to better screening and therapies, it isn’t the force it once was. Far fewer Canadian women die of the disease than they did 20 years ago, but it’s still not enough, because 5,000 women are expected to die from it this year alone, and liver metastases are an important driver of these deaths. This is why we’re focusing on targeted therapies. It’s where the answer lies,” explains Dr. Peter Metrakos.

We’ve talked a lot about treatments, but detecting cancer early on gives patients the greatest chance for survival. Liquid biopsy promises just that: the innovative and minimally invasive screening test detects even microscopic tumour DNA circulating in the body. Less invasive than a skin biopsy or a scan that uses radiation, the powerful technique only requires a sample of blood, urine, or saliva, placing it miles ahead of standard screening methods. This exciting research is being led by Dr. Julia Burnier, Scientist at the RI-MUHC and the Cancer Research Program.

“We’re so excited about liquid biopsy because it’s changing the very landscape of cancer screening. The impact will be huge, because it means that we will be able to detect cancer while it’s in its early stages, and most treatable. And the data coming out of this study is allowing us to make incredible strides in personalized and less invasive cancer monitoring,” shares Dr. Julia Burnier.

Liquid biopsy provides a very clear advantage against cancer, specifically because it can predict recurrence before a tumour forms. The data coming out of Dr. Burnier’s lab also provides a new look at different cancer types, allowing researchers to find weaknesses that can be exploited, as well as develop treatments that will target and destroy the specific type of cancer.

This research is already changing lives, but given the variety of cancers, there is more work that needs to be done before everyone can benefit from this personalized, precision approach.

“This is an exciting time in cancer research, and these advancements are made possible because of our incredible community of donors that rallies behind the hospital, supporting the innovative work of the MUHC’s cancer researchers. Together, we are ending cancer as a deadly disease,” says Marie-Hélène Laramée, President and CEO, MUHC Foundation.

The MUHC Foundation is proud to support the MUHC’s cancer researchers as they keep pushing the boundaries of medicine, and changing our understanding of what is possible. To learn more and support these promising advancements in precision cancer care and to see how you can get involved, visit the MUHC Foundation’s website:

The MUHC Foundation is accredited by Imagine Canada for excellence in non-profit accountability, transparency and governance.