Terry Fox Institute invests $5M in NB-led multiple myeloma treatment study

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WATCH ABOVE: Terry Fox's brother Darrell was on hand for a research funding announcement from the Terry Fox Research Institute. As Global's Andrew Cromwell reports, it also marked a first for Canada and New Brunswick – Feb 22, 2017

The Terry Fox Research Institute has announced it will help fund a New Brunswick-led cancer research team looking at improving treament of people living with multiple myeloma.

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The $5-million investment was announced at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Tuesday by the institute’s president Dr. Victor Ling.

A team made up of researchers and clinicians found across Canada will be led by Dr. Tony Reiman, a medical oncologist and professor at UNB. The five-year study involves researchers in several cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. They will look at how the disease can be identified, monitored and treated in hopes of changing how patients are cared for.

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Multiple myeloma is a cancer that starts in the plasma cells, found mainly in the bones and bone marrow though it can be found in other parts of the body, according to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). When there is a buildup of “abnormal plasma cells” – also known as myeloma cells – in the bone marrow, it creates difficulty for other cells to work properly, and can also form tumours in bones. The CCS estimates about 2,800 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2016. The National Cancer Institute reports there were more than 30,000 new cases in the United States in 2016, while the most recent worldwide statistics show more than 100,000 people were diagnosed.

While treatment helps, doctors say multiple myeloma can come back even when a patient is in remission.

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“In the hundreds of millions of cells there might be one that might be changed in a way that’s a little different from the other cells, so they become resistant to the treatment,” Ling said.

Having the announcement in Saint John also had deep meaning for one person in attendance with a significant connection to the institute – Terry Fox’s brother, Darrell, who joined Terry on his Marathon of Hope in the New Brunswick city on May 31, 1980.

“Here in Saint John, I instantly became a believer of miracles,” an emotional Fox said during the announcement. “I felt fortunate to have a front row seat of a historic event. I never wanted the curtain to go down.

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“To be here in Saint John, New Brunswick, to make this national announcement of a pan-Canadian project that’s going to save lives going forward is really special and has incredible meaning for me.”

Reiman’s team in Saint John will organize the other centres, but also perform its own research. There will be 250 patients with myeloma participating in the study.

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“Those patients are going to provide us with information about their disease and how things go with their treatment. They are going to provide us with blood and bone marrow for the research. There will be research laboratories across Canada working with this material provided by these patients to better understand their disease, particularly the bits of their disease that survive treatment and eventually cause relapse,” Reiman said.

He said how patients are treated needs to change.

“We’re working with sensitive newer techniques to better understand characteristics of the disease that escape our treatments and persist, even during clinical remission … so we can find better ways to kill those cells that survive the treatment,” he said.

Multiple myeloma patient Susan Collins also attended the announcement and though she is already part of a research study on the disease, she said this study gives her further hope for the future.

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“Maybe they’ll be part of finding a cure which is what those of us who live with it now are hoping for, not just for ourselves but other patients who are going to come along and have to cope with this too,” Collins said.

The typical age of survival for people with myeloma after they’ve been diagnosed depends on what stage of the disease the person is in. People in earlier stages can have a median survival rate of about five years, but in later stages the survival rate drops to about 29 months, according to CCS.

The Terry Fox Research Institute was launched 10 years ago, but this is the first time the institute has funded a project based in New Brunswick.

With files from Andrew Cromwell, Global News and Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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