Dr. Marco Marra: At the international forefront of pursuing a genomics answer to cancer

20 November 2019

Twenty years after the birth of Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC), Dr. Marco Marra remains convinced that genomics is an almost ideal technology for revealing insights into cancer.

The highly distinguished director of the GSC and world leader in the field of genomics has been driven by the idea since he arrived at the facility during its creation.

And he has continued, forging ahead, applying genomics to cancer since 2000, when he became the centre’s co-head, after the passing of his friend and mentor, GSC founding director Dr. Michael Smith.

Now overseeing a team of 13 principal investigators and 319 staff, Dr. Marra is steadfast in his drive—leading the way to understand how each cancer patient’s unique genetic code can guide their treatment.

“One of the main points of focus at the GSC is trying to understand how we can use knowledge of information content in the DNA and RNA of cancer patients, and how we can use that information to influence treatment decision making, to discover new therapeutic targets and to make cancer treatment more effective, more efficient and less toxic,” says Dr. Marra.

Specifically, Dr. Marra’s research looks to identify mutations and other genomic events that cause cancer or influence response to treatment. A significant part of this involves developing and applying new technologies, such as large-scale DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to allow scientists to peer into the inner-workings of a cancer genome.

As sequencing technology has vastly improved, work at the GSC into sophisticated computation has dramatically expanded. Over the last few years alone, the GSC has produced two quadrillion bases of sequencing information. To put that in context, printing that data out would produce a stack of paper approximately 33,000 kilometres tall.

“We are clearly moving into a very data-analysis intensive space,” says Dr. Marra.

One of the projects Dr. Marra is currently co-leading is the Personalized Onco-Genomics project at BC Cancer. The project is one of the first applications of genome and transcriptome analysis within a clinical setting. Over one thousand patients have been enrolled to date. Next steps include looking for opportunities to expand the program across the country.

Of course, Dr. Marra is not tackling these complex research challenges alone. In addition to the GSC’s principal investigators and staff, many trainees have come through the GSC to pursue research questions related to genomics and cancer. Twenty-nine of those have been funded through the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR).

“The investments that MSFHR has made in research are very significant,” says Dr. Marra. “The support MSFHR has given to many talented trainees has allowed us to establish a community of like-minded thinkers who together can move forward with a vision to have a genomics answer to cancer.”

In addition to funding Research Trainees, MSFHR has also presented eight Scholar awards to scientists from the GSC. Dr. Marra himself was an MSFHR Scholar twice, in 2001 and 2006. His 2001 Scholar award focused on the Genome Sciences Centre, whereas his 2006 Scholar award zeroed-in on genome-scale variation in health and disease.

“The MSFHR support that I received personally was enormously important to the development of my career,” says Dr. Marra.

Deemed one of the world’s most influential scientific minds, Dr. Marra is an author on over 485 peer-reviewed publications and has been principal investigator and co-applicant on grants worth a total of $299 million and has participated in local, national and international research projects worth a total of $448 million. Most recently he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame for 2020.

In addition to his work at the Genome Sciences Centre, Dr. Marra is a professor and head of the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the Canada Research Chair in Genome Science at UBC, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, and British Columbia node leader with the Terry Fox Research Institute.

As to the future of genomics and cancer biology, Dr. Marra envisions genomic analysis will continue drilling down to the level of the individual cell, and that research and clinical practice will become further intertwined.

“We are going to continue to try and understand cancer at a very deep level and use that information to uncover cancer cell vulnerability,” says Dr. Marra. “This includes studying cancers, not as a piece of tissue but cell by cell as well as moving closer to the clinic. Ultimately, we will continue to collaborate with clinical and research experts to push back the boundaries of knowledge as best we can to bring benefit to patients’ lives.”

Read more about MSFHR’s GSC support.