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Tony Zwig and wife Thea Caplan outside their home in Toronto on Nov. 10. The couple have donated $750,000 to the BC Cancer Foundation's Personalized OncoGenomics Program.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The organizers: Thea Caplan and Tony Zwig

The pitch: Donating $750,000

The cause: The BC Cancer Foundation

The reason: To support the Genome Sciences Centre

Ever since she was in high school, Thea Caplan has had a fascination with genetics, and she still pores over medical journals.

“That’s just my nerdy way,” Ms. Caplan said with a laugh from her home in Toronto.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, Ms. Caplan asked for a genomic test of her tumour, a relatively new method of analyzing genetic mutations in cancer that can help doctors tailor treatment to individual patients and in some cases avoid chemotherapy. She was told the test wasn’t covered by OHIP and that she would have to pay for it. A few years later Ms. Caplan’s husband, Tony Zwig, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and his treatment also did not involve genetic analysis.

Some time later, Ms. Caplan saw a television show about a unique program at BC Cancer’s Genome Sciences Centre called Personalized OncoGenomics, or POG. The centre has launched a trial that assesses a patient’s whole genome – 20,000 genes – to identify specific mutations that drive cancer growth. The research also helps doctors develop individualized treatment.

“I said to Tony, ‘This is transformative,’” Ms. Caplan recalled. “The program stuck in my mind and I kept following them.”

Ms. Caplan and Mr. Zwig both turn 70 this year and they decided to make a large charitable donation. “We started to think that time really is finite for us and so we thought that as opposed to waiting until we die, let’s see if we can help some people today,” Mr. Zwig said.

Last month the couple donated $750,000 to the BC Cancer Foundation to support the Genome Sciences Centre project. The money will help POG become more available across Canada.

The couple have both recovered from their cancers and they hope their donation will help change how the disease is treated. “We’re not in-front-of-the-camera kind of people. We don’t use social media,” Ms. Caplan said. “We really are just mission-oriented.”

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