Hope, accelerated.

Dr. Poul Sorensen

Feature Story

Hope, accelerated.

Dr. Poul Sorensen’s breakthrough cancer research has saved countless lives. But he thinks we can cut the time from discovery to treatment by 50% — or more.

In 2018, Emma was diagnosed with anaplastic ganglioglioma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. She was 16 years old. Intense headaches and debilitating nausea made schoolwork next to impossible, and prevented her from doing the things she loved, like performing with her school’s cheerleading squad.

In the months after the diagnosis, Emma underwent two surgeries and over 30 rounds of radiation therapy — but the tumour in her brain continued to grow. Chemotherapy held little promise. She and her parents had exhausted nearly every option.

Or so they thought.

Emma was prescribed Vitrakvi (larotrectinib), a newly approved cancer drug based on ground-breaking research by UBC’s Dr. Poul Sorensen, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and the director of the Academy of Translational Medicine.

“We’re entering a golden age for translational medicine. The obstacles to building efficient, localized biomedical innovation hubs are quickly falling away.”

– Dr. Poul Sorensen

“It was amazing,” Emma says. “The tumour immediately began to shrink and I started to feel better.”

Within a year, her life returned to normal. In 2021, Emma graduated from high school at the top of her class — while finding time to lead the cheerleading squad.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sorensen’s anti-tumour drug continues to offer new hope to countless other cancer patients across Canada, the United States and beyond every year.

Hearing stories like Emma’s, Dr. Sorensen feels a sense of pride and satisfaction.

He’s also haunted by possibility.

“It’s deeply gratifying to know that my work is making a difference for people like Emma. But the process of translating research into a viable medicine is maddeningly slow — it can take a decade or longer,” he says. “You can’t help but wonder: What if we could cut that time by half? How many more patients could we have helped by now?”

For Dr. Sorensen, it’s a sentiment he hears all too often from researchers, industry partners, and most importantly from patients like Emma and her family.

The long journey from discovery to breakthrough treatment

Vitrakvi’s long journey from the laboratory through the drug development pipeline is typical of most life-saving medicines, even today.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Sorensen discovered an unusual genetic mutation that causes tumour cells to produce a cancer-causing enzyme. He and his team showed that, by manipulating certain biochemical pathways, the enzyme could, in theory, be switched off. The implications of his research were far-reaching: If the right compound could be identified and developed to target the enzyme, then it could be used to treat many different cancers.

But it wasn’t until 2018 that Dr. Sorensen’s discovery reached patients like Emma in the form of the cancer drug that would eventually save her life.

That’s because, traditionally, the journey from discovery to drug treatment is expensive — and inefficient.

Once researchers identify a potential new treatment, it’s up to pharmaceutical companies to license the research and kickstart development — formulating potential compounds, testing their safety and efficacy, seeking approval from government regulatory bodies, and finally manufacturing and commercializing the drug as a patient-ready treatment.

Emma responded quickly to Dr. Sorensen’s cancer drug: ‘It was amazing, the tumour immediately began to shrink and I started to feel better,’ she recalls.

Every stage of the drug development pipeline requires different types of expertise and different kinds of infrastructure — often involving many different public- and private-sector partnerships and institutions, from laboratories to clinics to bio-manufacturers, located in different parts of the world.

“It’s like a relay race, and you’re building the baton while you run each leg,” Dr. Sorensen says. “The problem is that when it comes time to pass the baton, the next runner might be too fast or too slow, or uses a different hand-off technique, or he might be running on a different track altogether, which ultimately slows down the entire process.”

As a result, progress is measured in years, if not decades, while cost is measured in the many billions of dollars. And patients’ lives.

Dr. Sorensen thinks we can do better — much better.

Accelerating drug development by 50% — or more

Across the globe, only a few bench-to-bedside hubs exist where the entire pipeline process, from research breakthroughs to lifesaving drugs, can happen efficiently in one place: Boston, Houston, Oxford, Cambridge, London, the Bay Area, and a few others.

That is changing, Dr. Sorensen says. “We’re entering a golden age for translational medicine. The obstacles to building efficient, localized hubs are quickly falling away.”

New technologies such as self-replicating RNA, genomic sequencing, machine learning, molecular imaging, and quantum computing have emerged, accelerating discovery while shrinking the infrastructure footprint, making translational medicine nimbler and more cost-effective than ever before.

Today, these bench-to-bedside hubs are not just thinkable but highly viable in places like British Columbia — where world-class, interdisciplinary researchers thrive in a dynamic but still-developing biomedical innovation ecosystem. What’s needed now is more coordination and resources.

“With support from our partners in government and business, we’re poised to realize this tremendous potential right here in our own backyard.”

– Dr. Poul Sorensen

Enter UBC’s Academy of Translational Medicine (ATM). Launched in 2021 under the direction of Dr. Sorensen, the ATM brings together people from across B.C.’s academic, life sciences, business, health and government sectors to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into clinical practice.

“With support from our partners in government and business, we’re poised to realize that tremendous potential right here in our own backyard,” he says.

Dr. Sorensen is confident that B.C. can become a world-class hub to rival Boston or Oxford, bringing new lifesaving treatments to patients in half the time it currently takes.

He has high expectations for his own latest discovery, a potential treatment pathway for Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive and often fatal childhood cancer. His research is well on its way to becoming a clinical-grade immunotherapeutic treatment.

“If we can make acceleration the norm, the impact on individual patients, communities and the entire health-care system would be enormous.”

Emma, too, has high expectations for the future. Now in remission, she started university this past September with her sights set on a career in business or health-care administration.

“I feel like I have the rest of my life back,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

What is translational medicine?

The goal of translational medicine is to accelerate and translate research discoveries into lifesaving medicine, treatments, diagnostic tools, devices, and prevention strategies — quickly and safely — for the benefit of patients, families and communities around the world. It is a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to health care that brings together experts from across the life sciences, government and business sectors.

B.C.’s biomedical innovation ecosystem

The UBC Faculty of Medicine sits within a thriving network of hospitals, research institutions and laboratories, partner universities and skills and training institutions, biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies, and other industry collaborators located across Vancouver’s Lower Mainland and British Columbia.

With input from patients and oversight from government regulators, UBC researchers are producing some of the world’s most advanced treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease to Type-1 diabetes.