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FOG Spotlight: A Conversation with Catalina Lopez-Correa

“When we say, ‘taking genomics out of the lab to the living room’, that, for me, was the Festival” says Festival of Genomics and Biodata Keynote speaker, Catalina Lopez-Correa, as she reflects on her experience attending her first Festival in London.

We’re delighted to have had the chance to sit down with Catalina Lopez-Correa this week. Catalina is one of Canada’s leading advocates for genomics, and has been serving in her role as Chief Scientific Officer of Genome Canada since July 2021. However, since being diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she has also been on the receiving end of genetic testing.

In advance of her Keynote Fireside Chat at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston next month, Catalina shares with us her unique experiences and perspectives as both a scientist and patient, and why she thinks you should be at the event.

Want to hear more from Catalina and 160+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston. It’s FREE for 90% of attendess!

Please note: Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

FLG: Hi everybody. Today we’re joined by Catalina Lopez-Correa, CSO of Genome Canada. Catalina will be joining us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in June for a keynote Fireside Chat, and today, she’ll be giving some insights into what she’ll be discussing and why you should come along to the BCEC and hear her in person. So, Catalina, over to you. Could you tell our audience a little bit about your background and career, including your current role as Chief Scientific Officer of Genome Canada?

Catalina: Thank you, I’m excited to be joining the Festival this year in Boston. I am Chief Scientific Officer with Genome Canada, and I’ve had this role for a few years. I have had a similar role with other genome centres across Canada – Genome British Columbia and Genome Quebec. Basically, my role is leading on the scientific aspects. A lot of it is also working with international partners, presenting the work we’re doing, attracting potential collaborations and partnerships to help advance the use and implementation of genomics across Canada. At Genome Canada about 60% of our portfolio of projects are in health, but we do also have projects in other areas like forestry and agriculture but, of course, health is a big part of what we do.

FLG: Not only are you CSO of Genome Canada, you yourself have also been through a cancer diagnosis. Can you tell our audience a little bit about your journey?

Catalina: Yes, absolutely. I have to first say it is, of course, a real challenge. When you get this diagnosis, that word ‘cancer’, and having a diagnosis of breast cancer, it’s challenging. And it’s challenging, of course, for everybody. For me, the complexity also came with being a scientist, being a medical doctor. I sometimes thought I maybe had too much knowledge, too many facts in my head, and also an eagerness to learn and study. It has been, of course, a journey as a patient, but also in a way a journey as a scientist, these years since my diagnosis and treatment. The journey as a patient, through the different experiences with treatment, but also with diagnostic tools, biomarkers, and all the potential uses of genomics in this journey.

FLG: It must have offered you a completely different perspective on the subject, having been a scientist, a doctor, and then a patient. It must have been a difficult journey for you.

I wanted to move on to talk about open and equitable access to science and healthcare.  An important goal of The Festival of Genomics and Biodata is to foster that and allow people to learn and collaborate without a paywall. How important do you think that is for science in the modern day, speaking from both your experience as a patient, and a scientist and a doctor, and how has your journey influenced your perspective on that?

Catalina: That’s a really important question. I have been working in the world of genomics for the last 25 years, and I have been advocating, supporting and helping advance the use and clinical implementation of genomics. I remember in my presentations at conferences, panels, saying, ‘Genomics is here.’ Genomics is now in the clinic, genomics is having an impact in everything we do, and is critical in the entire healthcare continuum, from prevention to diagnosis, treatment, prognosis – everything. And I always gave several examples.

One of those examples was breast cancer, as an area where genomics is in the clinic being used full time. Well, my surprise, really, as a patient was to learn that, yes, indeed, there are lots of advancements and my tumour was profiled, and I got some tests. That was great and that guided my treatment and refined my diagnosis. But there are still a lot of challenges in terms of access. Lots of tests are not fully available in the clinic, in Canada in particular, some of them you need to pay for, only some of them are accessible through the healthcare system.

And I also started to see that we have a global challenge around this. Because, imagine if I am having challenges with access in Canada, or in the US or the UK, , imagine what it is like for people in other countries. It was a total eye opener for me, to see that restriction around access, those issues we have around accessing tests that are, in principle, ready for clinical use.

FLG: There’s still so much to be done regarding access all over the world. And you’re right, there must be so many people out there who are not able to access the help that they need, and it’s really important that people are doing the work to achieve that. Did your experience as a patient deviate from what you expected it to be?

Catalina: Yes. It’s a whole different dimension when you talk about genomics in abstract compared to when you talk about your own genome, and how this is helping you guide your treatment. So, it was a very positive experience in that sense, because big decisions about my treatments were made based on my genomic profiling, which is, wow, empowering, and good. But it was also challenging, again, the access was difficult, and also frustrating in a way to see that there are so many disparities. This journey opened my eyes to, even here where I live in Vancouver, so many disparities, so many challenges. It was a whole different experience for me as a patient, now I do see genomics with a whole different lens, let’s say.

FLG: In what ways do you think that your experience has shaped your approach to advocating for broader access to genomic testing and precision medicine?

Catalina: I think my approach is now completely different. I am much more, in a way, realistic. I was always an optimist, but I had a very theoretical position – genomics is here, tests are available. But now I know, with my journey, exactly what is available, what is not, the challenges we have in terms of equity, in terms of access, in terms of lack of diversity in our international datasets. So, lots of challenges are now becoming more tangible and real for me, because I’m living through those as a patient.

FLG: What steps do you think are necessary to ensure that things like genetic testing and personalised medicine are integrated into routine clinical practice, in a way that is accessible and equitable for everybody?

Catalina: There is still a factor of cost. Even though we talk about the $200 genome and this dramatic reduction in costs for whole genome sequencing that is at the core of what we call the ‘genomic revolution’. Yes, it’s real that the cost has been reduced, and that over the years it’s a lower cost to sequence a whole genome. But in reality, when you think that some of the tests are not whole genome, they’re just a panel and will cost $500. And the test is not even done in Canada; samples have to be sent to the US. I think we still have a lot of work to do in terms of reduction of cost, and setting up facilities in different countries so that it is not all US centric. There are lots of logistics and real challenges about implementation.

I think there is also a big challenge in terms of better knowledge from the healthcare system and ministers of health, about the power, the promises and the benefits of genomic testing. Some of them will just look at the cost of the test only, as opposed to the great benefits, and even the savings you can make. Because with some of these tests will guide the clinician to decide if a patient will not need chemotherapy – that’s a big saving for the healthcare system, and of course, a big saving for the patient, because they don’t need to have all these side effects and things. We still have a huge lack of knowledge in the system about the benefits and the power of the technology.

FLG: Obviously, there’s still a lot of collaboration and knowledge sharing that needs to be done to ensure this equitable access to health care. And a large part of what we’re trying to do with the Festival is to foster that and help it grow. Do you think that events like this, with free access to that kind of knowledge, is something that can help with that?

Catalina: Absolutely, absolutely. I used to say, with the COVID pandemic, we really took genomics out of the lab, and moved it from the lab to the living room, and I think that the Festival, in a way, does that, because it’s not a meeting that is only for hardcore scientists talking about hardcore science. It has a broader audience. We need to reach policymakers, we need to reach politicians, we need to reach entrepreneurs, social scientists, not just the hardcore genomicists, talking about this sequence, this gene. Of course, we need that too, to advance the science, but now, to increase access, we need these regulatory agencies and regulatory experts to be there and learn about the power of this technology.

So, I think opening the message, making it free and opening it to a much broader audience is critical at this stage. Because those are the people that, at the end of the day, will make the decisions. Decisions or reimbursements are not made by the hardcore scientists in the lab that are developing the tests, they are made by regulatory agencies. Policymakers are doing many other things; they are not genomics specialists. So, the short answer is yes, it is critical.

And the other aspect I will mention here is that advocating and supporting open access to the data, so that other countries that might not be able to generate all the data can have access to it, to lead their evidence-based decisions in terms of reimbursement and implementation, I think that’s also very, very important.

FLG: I love that quote about ‘from the lab to the living room.’ I think you often hear about ‘the lab to the clinic’, but it’s taking it that step further, isn’t it? It’s so important.

In your opinion, what are some of the most promising developments in genomics research that have the potential to improve healthcare outcomes for diverse populations? And how can we ensure that these benefits reach everybody?

Catalina: If we think about breast cancer, there are so many advances now, there are endless possibilities. I can give you a couple of examples. I enrolled into a study on the microbiome and breast cancer that is super cool. There is also the circulating tumour DNA test that allows you to see if you still have any circulating tumour DNA, which indicates that maybe your tumour is not completely removed. That one I haven’t been able to access, I’m looking forward to accessing it at one point. But there are so many advances, these technologies are moving so fast. Some countries are now doing whole genome sequencing as opposed to panels, whole genome sequencing of the tumour compared to your constitutional DNA. There are great advancements in the different applications of the technology, we can sequence faster, at lower costs.

All of this is putting genomic technology at the core of precision oncology and, of course, precision health in general. I think after 20 years of investment and after the sequencing of the first human genome, we thought it would be faster, but I think the reality is we are now seeing that real impact in the clinic. The challenges, again, access and equities, we have the possibility to have an impact in the clinic, but not everybody can act. And that’s the problem.

FLG: What role do you see organisations like Genome Canada playing in promoting that accessibility, both nationwide and across borders?

Catalina: We play an important role in creating awareness, educating and, of course, supporting research. So, we’re supporting all these advances in terms of sequencing. We’re working more and more on projects that are applied, and that are not just concentrating only on the science, but our partnerships. We have a programme that is called All for One, on rare diseases. Each of the projects is a partnership between a scientist, a clinician and a Health Authority in one of our provinces. We have projects in each of the provinces. And this partnership between the scientist, the clinician and the Health Authority, the Ministry of Health in the province, is really allowing us to take genomics one step further. Initiatives like these are not focusing only on the science, but going beyond that, and trying to push the limits towards clinical implementation, the involvement of the healthcare system, regulators, policymakers, and so on.

FLG: Fantastic. And you’ll be discussing your experiences in a fireside chat at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston next month, what do you think the audience can hope to learn from your talk?

Catalina: Well, it’s interesting, because now I’m going to be there in a different capacity, presenting my personal story. Which is funny, because I remember before being diagnosed, that I always said to the initiatives and projects that we had in Canada, that we need to have the voice of the patient. We’re doing all this for patients, and yet, we never hear from patients, we never have the voice of the patient at the centre of our meetings, to understand, ‘why are we doing that?’ I think that’s what this Fireside Chat could bring, the voice of the patient. And of course, in my personal story, there is the mix of the patient with the scientist and with the doctor, that makes this journey, from a genomics perspective, different and, I will say, maybe more interesting.

FLG: I’m sure it will be very interesting! You’ve also attended the Festival before – what do you think makes the event unique, and why would you encourage people to come along?

Catalina: I remember the first one I attended in London – it blew my mind! I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ When we say, ‘taking genomics out of the lab to the living room’, that for me, was the Festival. It’s a way to talk to so many different people, a broader audience and really engage in a whole different way, which is not, again, your hardcore presentations, it’s much more engaging, and much more dynamic. And the fact that you have people from so many different backgrounds, it makes it so rich and so dynamic. I actually had fun seeing all the different tracks and meeting all kinds of people that I would typically never meet at any of the other conferences. So, since my first participation years ago in London, I’m really looking forward to being part of the community here in the US.

FLG: Well, we’re really looking forward to having you there, and we’re glad that you had fun! That’s what we hope all of the audience has. Thank you for joining us today, it was a really interesting discussion, and we’re very excited for your talk in Boston next month.

Catalina: I’m super excited. Thanks for the invitation. And I look forward to participating in the Fireside Chat and having the opportunity to meet a lot of people in Boston. I’m excited about it!

Want to hear more from Lee and 160+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston!