Starting on Monday, a Vancouver biotechnology company will make an unconventional offer to Canadian cancer patients, by making its new cancer genome test available to 1,500 cancer patients -- at no cost.

The move is part marketing, part testing the potential market in an emerging field of cancer therapy called "personalized medicine."

Contextual Genomics will become the first group in Canada to offer cancer patients a chance at therapy tailored to their genetics.

Dr. David Huntsman, chief medical officer of Contextual Genomics, says this kind of personalized medicine is the future of cancer care.

"The essence of personalized cancer care can be distilled into the right treatment for the right patient in the right time, and our test will help patients and oncologists determine what is the best option," he told CTV News.

Across Canada, several studies are already underway studying how genetic analysis of cancer tumours can help improve cancer control and patient survival. This commercial test is being done outside of a clinical study.

In order to conduct a genetic analysis of a patient’s tumour, doctors will have to acquire a sample the tumour and send it to the Contextual Genomics lab. The test identifies changes in the cell that have made it cancerous.

A week later, officials say the doctor and patient will receive a report that includes a list of drugs that may work against their specific cancer mutations, as well as a list of those that won't.

The company's president and chief executive officer Chris Wagner said the procedure has become increasingly accessible.

"Ten years ago, this would have been science fiction, but today it is actually cost effective to sequence someone's DNA and looking how we can personalize treatment for it," he said.

Following the pilot project offering the analysis for free, the company plans to offer the test to all patients at a cost of about $1,000.


With current cancer therapy, most patients with a certain type and stage of cancer receive the same treatment. These generalized therapies work for some patients, but not for others.

Personalized medicine is designed to target the genetic points that are causing a patient's disease to give patients a better chances at remission and possibly a cure.

But some doctors say this idea is still largely experimental and theoretical.

Dr. Steven Narod, a Canada Research Chair in breast cancer, and senior scientist at Toronto's Women's College Hospital, says the test being offered by Contextual Genomics could pose issues for doctors.

"I am surprised that a company is ready and willing to offer it before we have information to prove this is useful," Narod said.

"Linking mutated genes and a list of drugs that might attack that specific cancer with goal of extending life is still considered experimental. I think most cancer doctors will be reluctant to order (the test) because they will have difficulty interpreting the results."

Narod said patients will have to foot the bill for the genetic test exactly because it is unproven.

"In order to be paid by (provincial) health insurers, (the company) would have to show that it makes a difference," he said. "The fact they are asking the patient to pay for it, means they don't have that level of evidence."

Contextual Genomics officials admit the field of personalized medicine is still unfolding. But with the technology available, and cancer genetic testing now easy to do, some cancer patients may not be in a position to wait.

"I really want to be able to say that this will save lives, (but) the truth is that we don't know the answer to that because the study that will determine whether this will save lives is going to take an incredibly long period of time," said Wagner.

With a report from CTV’s medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip