April 16, 2012

Genome BC and other partners are providing much needed funding for the PROOF Centre of Excellence to develop a test to identify patients at risk for lung attacks

British Columbia is facing a healthcare funding challenge and two of the major drivers contributing to it are emphysema and bronchitis, known together as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Exacerbations of COPD, or ‘lung attacks’, are currently the leading cause of emergency room visits and hospitalizations among chronic disease sufferers in BC, and across the country. Such lung attacks are also costly to the healthcare system, accounting for over $5.7 billion in direct, and $6.7 billion for indirect, healthcare costs every year in Canada.

Genome BC and other partners are providing much needed funding for the PROOF Centre of Excellence to develop a test that will enable COPD patients to breathe a sigh of relief. Expected results from this work is a simple blood test, which could be done at any clinical laboratory in BC, to determine if a person is at risk for a lung attack and allow appropriate preventative measures to be taken. This would be a huge step forward from the current diagnosis method: which is a breathing test that is available only in certain centres in the province, and must be performed by specially trained personnel.

Previous funding from Genome BC and a range of partners enabled the PROOF Centre team to establish the infrastructure and tools to quickly validate novel blood-based laboratory tests, called bio-signatures. This expertise will now be directed at solving the enormous burden of COPD on the healthcare system. “When someone comes into the hospital with a severe lung attack, it usually takes 100 days to get to 80% of his or her baseline health,” explains Dr. Don Sin, Project Leader and Head of Respiratory Medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital. “This means that if their health was poor to begin with, the new attack can be devastating, even fatal.” Dr. Sin, who sees COPD sufferers in his clinic on a daily basis, adds that every time a patient experiences an attack, there are complications and long-lasting implications. “There is a huge unmet need to predict and better treat COPD.”

If successful with this new and more accurate picture of a patient’s disease, physicians will be able to better treat and manage COPD. Information garnered from the analysis of a patient’s blood may also hasten the development of future drug therapies to treat the disease. “Our recently discovered genes or protein marker sets that could have the ability to predict lung attacks now must be validated. We will be able to validate the power of the bio-signatures to identify patients at risk for lung attacks within the next two years,” says Dr. Bruce McManus, Project Co-leader and Director of the PROOF Centre. “Thanks to support from Genome BC and by working in collaboration with other partners including Providence Health Care, Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, and GlaxoSmithKline, we envisage doing proof-of-concept studies in the clinic within two to three years.”

This work will not only meet the needs of patients, but also complements the initiatives undertaken by BC’s Ministry of Health in COPD. The foundation of this plan is the mobilization of COPD experts at three Lower Mainland hospitals who will identify all lung attack patients seen at the site in order to educate and train patients (i.e., on proper inhaler use), and establish follow-up care either with their family physician or the COPD clinic. The establishment of this program means that translation from laboratory to patient will be seamless: there is a pipeline already laid out for patient care and related research.

“Being a part of something so clinically tangible indicates that our funding is going towards the right programs,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President & CEO of Genome BC. “The results of this project will have not only clinical implications for patient care, but also will be tackling a disease that takes up an enormous amount of healthcare resources.”

Genome BC is funding this research through its Applied Genomics Consortium Program (AGCP). The AGCP is designed to bring together national and international consortia, funding partners and industry and provide an opportunity to fund projects that will have a significant impact on strategic sectors of British Columbia’s economy.

Background info on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

• COPD is a progressive disease that causes reduced lung function in the form of shortness of breath and coughing.

• COPD has been a major health problem for decades, but has seen a disturbing increase in the last decade. One major reason for the increase is our aging population, who may at one time have been, or still are, smokers. However, there are significant figures relating to the prevalence and occurrence of lung attacks that still go unexplained.

• Treating COPD with certain drug therapies are helpful, but they are very expensive and not effective in the majority of patients. Because it is not clear which COPD patients are at risk for lung attacks, doctors don’t really know who will benefit most from these drugs, and so they are often over-prescribed in hopes of alleviating patient suffering.

Click here to learn more about the COPD program at the PROOF Centre.