Cancer starts as a genetic change in one cell.
At the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) at BC Cancer, researchers are using tools and techniques underpinned by Dr. Michael Smith’s work to understand these changes, learn why and how cancers form and spread, and figure out how to ‘turn off’ the genes that drive cancer growth, and ‘turn on’ our body's cancer defenses.
The GSC, founded and initially led by Smith and his colleague Dr. Victor Ling, opened its doors a year before Smith’s death in 2000, and quickly put BC on the map as an international leader in genomics research.
Ling, who was vice president of research at BC Cancer at the time, had recruited Smith out of retirement to develop the centre. It was a master strategic move given Smith had recently won his Nobel Prize, and was Canada’s most famous scientist, popular with the research community, government and the public at large.
Dr. Marco Marra, director of the GSC, who had completed his PhD at Simon Fraser University but was pursuing post-doctoral studies at Washington University in St. Louis, remembers his first interactions with Smith. “I remember our conversations vividly because Michael was working with Victor to establish a genomic centre at BC Cancer and at the time I was skeptical that Canada, much less Vancouver, could be competitive in this area. Of course I was wrong. With Michael’s passion and energy behind the centre it was a great opportunity to come back to Canada and work in my field.”
Not only did Smith develop the GSC, but to this day the vast majority of the work conducted in the centre’s labs relies on chemistry that Smith was instrumental in developing, both for site-directed mutagenesis and later DNA sequencing. These techniques have resulted in new made-in-BC treatments and practices that have led to BC having some of the best cancer treatment outcomes in the world.
Michael’s chemistry — from site-directed mutagenesis to the DNA sequencing approach he helped Fred Sanger develop — underpins many of our major advances in cancer understanding and treatment for the last two decades, from personalized medicine and drug development, to advanced diagnostics.
“Site-directed mutagenesis was a ground-breaking technology, the CRISPR of its day, that allowed an explosion of activity in genomics and genomics research. Michael is known for that Nobel Prize-winning work, but his legacy stretches far more broadly across the fields of DNA sequencing and manipulation, and capacity building in BC,” explains Dr. Steve Jones, head of bioinformatics and co-director of the GSC, and another of Smith’s early recruits who was drawn back to BC from the UK’s Sanger Institute to head up the centre’s bioinformatics function. “Michael’s chemistry — from site-directed mutagenesis to the DNA sequencing approach he helped Fred Sanger develop — underpins many of our major advances in cancer understanding and treatment over the last two decades, from personalized medicine and drug development, to advanced diagnostics.”
Smith left behind not only the chemistry that formed the foundations of modern genomics research, and infrastructure that would allow BC to thrive as an international leader in the field, but also the vision that we could use the tools of genome science — which largely didn't exist at the time — to make a positive impact in the lives of people living with cancer.
“Michael had the ability to see the potential in people, and in research,” reflects Marra. “He had real vision. Some days we can all be a little shy of vision, but we must look for that potential and pursue it with rigour.”
Having been repatriated to BC by Smith, Marco Marra and Steve Jones (pictured in header image with Smith at the Genome Sciences Centre, February 2000) became two of MSFHR’s first Scholars (2001 and 2003 respectively), both receiving second Scholar awards five years later. MSFHR has funded over 160 researchers at BC Cancer since 2001, supporting world-class cancer and genomics research for the benefit of British Columbians.