A new era of precision medicine to start at McGill

There are three things that get doctors jazzed up: Sleep, coffee, and precision medicine. Caricatures aside, the next stage of medicine will likely include increasingly accurate diagnoses and personalized treatments that consider patients’ genetics, known as precision medicine. Large tissue sample collections and big data on tissue donors have been at the forefront of a new wave of medical research around the world, fuelling this progression. These annotated repositories, termed ‘biobanks,’ are commonly used for associating abnormal cellular or molecular biological markersbiomarkerswith disease. 

Although large biobanks exist in countries such as the UK, US, and China, smaller, local studies are critical validation tools for any healthcare system with distinct genetic diversity. Ayat Salman, a PhD student in the Department of Family Medicine, believes that Quebec’s medical record-keeping infrastructure is limiting the ability to track chronic diseases in the population. Currently, a large portion of medical write-ups in Quebec are stored as scans of doctors’ scribblings on paper, and fax machines govern most communication between hospitals. According to Salman, this antiquated system limits researchers from searching for or codifying data from years of tissue donors’ previous visits to their doctors, potentially letting important flags of chronic disease to go unnoticed. 

“Each tissue has a story associated with it,” Salman said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “The family doctor who keeps a record of regular visits is a good source to tell that story.” 

To gain access to this resource, Salman is pushing for the implementation of standardized electronic medical records across family doctors’ offices in Quebec, so that biobank researchers need not go on furious fax chases to gain knowledge on patients. 

Although much information could be gained from the general practitioner’s office, donors might soon be able to help draw connections between lifestyle and disease by contributing data collected from health-tracking applications to certain biobanks. Montreal has seen a recent boom in app-based health startups. 

“There are so many small companies with great software out there that can be put together and used [in a centralized] biobank,” Salman said. 

When performed in a calculated, secure, and ethical way, data collection on a large scale could catapult Quebec into a new age of understanding chronic diseases.

The information that we gain from biomarker research is only half the battle in providing the public with quality medical care. Professor Vincent Mooser, the new Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Genomic Medicine who joined McGill’s Department of Human Genetics in August, wants to apply biomarker research to develop new therapies.

“[The other half] involves clinical trials to show that [the information gained from biobanking research] can be used for drug discovery and drug development,” Mooser said.

With the help of more than $25 million in funding over the next seven years and an enterprising research program, Mooser hopes to catalyze the world-class biomedical infrastructure at the university and move genomic research-based therapies into the doctor’s office. 

“[Many studies] have already linked biomarkers with disease,” Mooser said. “I am hoping to show that what they found is clinically useful and can actually be translated towards new drug discoveries.”

Mooser is hoping to solve the quandary that if a doctor identifies a disease biomarker in a patient but does not have a proven way to adjust his treatment accordingly, then the initial test for the biomarker serves no clinical purpose. If Mooser and his team succeed in their ambitious goals for the coming decade, McGill may soon be at the centre of a new era in genome-based drug development.

The biomedical field is at the cusp of a revolution in the way that disease is treated, and McGill appears to be keeping with the times. Salman and Mooser have different approaches to precision medicine in Canada, but they share a strong drive to advance evidence-based care towards a future of precision and prevention.

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