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Researchers Samuel Aparicio, left, and Sohrab Shah announced a new method for tracking cell mutations in breast cancer during a news conference in Vancouver on Monday.DARRYL DYCK

A B.C. research team has found a way to track cell mutations in breast cancer, opening the door to potential new drugs and highlighting the notion of treating cancer as a moving target.

"We are a few years away from [this discovery] leading to new drugs, but it is changing the way we think about the drug discovery pipeline," Samuel Aparicio, head of the B.C. Cancer Agency's Department of Molecular Oncology, said Monday.

And while the new discoveries are specific to breast cancer, "we expect the findings to generalize" to other types of cancer, Dr. Aparicio added.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature, used genomic sequencing and statistical modelling to track how breast cancers evolve over time.

The research breakthrough comes as the B.C. Cancer Agency is under a spotlight over concerns that include waiting times for patients, staff burnout and limited funds for research. In October, a past president said in a public commentary that the agency had "lost its way." (In a written response, the head of the Provincial Health Services Authority, which oversees the agency, disputed that characterization.) And in a November letter obtained by The Globe and Mail, several cancer doctors wrote to PHSA to voice concerns about morale and management issues at the agency.

In introducing the lead authors of the new study, B.C. Cancer Foundation president Douglas Nelson referred briefly to recent media coverage before saying how the new discovery illustrates how the agency and its partners can work together to make groundbreaking progress.

"This is research that is changing the face of cancer," Mr. Nelson said, adding that the agency is "not only on track, but continuing to set a new worldwide standard."

Dr. Aparicio, the senior author of the paper, likened the way cancer cells evolve to the way in which some bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and emerge as superbugs.

"We can now look at cancer as a kind of cellular superbug, with the ability to change over time and in response to treatments," Dr. Aparicio said.

Research was conducted in lab models using breast-cancer tissue samples donated by patients and used a computational model developed by Sohrab Shah, co-senior author of the study and a scientist at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

Doctors who were part of the research effort praised the patients involved, saying 15 women agreed to multiple biopsies as part of the ongoing research.

The B.C. Cancer Agency provides cancer care and research in the province, while the B.C. Cancer Foundation is a fundraising body. Over the past 10 years, the foundation has provided more than $172-million in support to the agency, which has a budget of $617-million a year.

Recent headlines about difficulties at the agency have not shaken donors' confidence in the foundation and the work it supports, Mr. Nelson said.

"The care that people are being provided is exceptional and has not been called into question," Mr. Nelson said. "And the research results really are working … what we have been hearing from donors, certainly over the last week, is that they are checking in to make sure that our commitment to research is still there.

"And [that commitment] is unwavering – so it's actually been an opportunity to have a number of very constructive conversations with donors."

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