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Helen MacKay headshot

Dr. Helen MacKay

Chair, Principal Investigator Coordinating Committee Exactis Innovation & Head of the Division of Medical Oncology & Hematology, Sunnybrook Hospital

Garry Batist HS

Dr. Gerald Batist

Co-Founder & Chief Medical Officer, Exactis Innovation & Director, McGill Centre for Translational Research in Cancer

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the diagnosis of patients with more advanced cancers. Targeted treatments will help Canada tackle this challenge.

Cancer specialists are concerned about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer diagnosis and treatment. Initial suspension of preventive screening programs and delays in treatment, along with patients avoiding doctor visits out of fear of catching the virus, have led to Canadians being diagnosed later and with more advanced cancers, which are harder to treat.

Tackling this challenge will require innovation to deliver better, more targeted treatments — providing the right treatment to the right person at the right time. Exactis Innovation is a pan-Canadian network helping clinicians do just that. Since December 2015, the Personalize My Treatment (PMT) initiative has been enrolling cancer patients into a registry that captures their medical history and the molecular and genomic characteristics of their cancer. The goal of the network is to increase the number of precision oncology trials in Canada and increase access to novel targeted treatments for Canadian cancer patients.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected cancer diagnosis and treatment and how can the health care system solve this challenge?

Worldwide, there was more than a 50 to 75 percent reduction in some cancer screenings and surgeries. As patients start coming back, we’re seeing more advanced cancers. There has been modelling that shows that there will be an increase in mortality over the next few years. To mitigate that, we’ll need to rebuild our human resources, especially by hiring more nurses, to increase capacity. But to beat cancer, we’ll also need to crank up our clinical research tremendously, with new treatments for better outcomes.

How will precision medicine help reach these goals?

Precision medicine gives you much better outcomes. If we have this tsunami of cancer patients, with even more advanced disease, and we keep giving them standard chemotherapy, the same outcomes will occur. We need research and innovation to get ourselves out of this. In Canada, we’re slow to approve a variety of drugs, so the way that we access new treatments is by putting patients on clinical trials that give them access to these drugs.

How is Exactis Innovation advancing precision medicine in Canada?

Though I’m based at Sunnybrook, I’m linked with all of the centres that are part of the Exactis network. For me, Exactis is about furthering the precision medicine agenda and bringing more trials to Canada to benefit patients. So as a centre, we’re involved in the studies, but we also collaborate with principal investigators from other centres to advance that agenda toward precise treatments.

What most excites you about the advancement of precision medicine?

Discovering biomarkers that can help you select the right treatment for the right person at the right time is hugely important. Also, in being more precise about treatments, it’s not just about living longer, it’s about living better. More targeted therapy helps to reduce the toxicity of the medications. Hitting the right target maximizes quality of life and minimizes toxicity. We always knew that one size did not fit all, we just didn’t have the tools to be able to select treatments. We’re moving into this era where we’re starting to do that and it’s hugely exciting.

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