Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Marco Marra

One of the largest collaborative scientific projects in history was the international Human Genome Project (HGP), begun in 1990 and completed in 2003.  Among the project’s participants was the distinguished Canadian scientist Dr. Marco Marra, now Head of the Department of Medical Genetics at The University of British Columbia and Director of Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Science Centre (GSC) at BC Cancer.  The massive and unprecedented scale of genomic data provided by the HGP has since revolutionized our understanding of disease biology ranging from cancer to cognitive impairment and continues to unfold new possibilities for integrating laboratory research and clinical practice to improve cancer control. The Personalized Oncogenomics (POG) project at BC Cancer, under Dr. Marra’s leadership, represents one of the first applications of whole genome sequencing in a clinical setting, using information derived from thousands of individual cancer genomes and transcriptomes to identify promising therapeutic targets in individual patients, thus influencing the management of their disease.  The staggering promise of vastly expanded genomic information first achieved by the HGP is being fully realized by Dr. Marra and his colleagues in their push towards personalized medicine informed by the expanding resources of whole genome analyses.  The necessity of routinely decoding cancer for both research and clinical care, and thus discovering individualized treatments and even cures, is being furthered by Dr. Marra and the GSC in the global fight against cancer.

Dr. Marra is one of the world’s most cited scientists in the field of molecular biology & genetics with more than 400 scientific publications.  He is a hand-picked successor of his great mentor Nobel and CMHF Laureate Dr. Michael Smith, who along with his colleague Dr. Victor Ling, was an early champion of genome research in Canada and who together established the GSC at BC Cancer.  Dr. Marra himself has since mentored many scientists and graduate students who are now providing the expertise and insight needed to continue and fulfill the promise of the genomic revolution through technological innovation, enhanced informatics, and creative clinical applications.  The work of Dr. Marra in BC has attracted the world’s attention.  For example, in 2003, at the height of the SARS outbreak around the world, Dr. Marra and his team of researchers captured international attention by rapidly and successfully sequencing the SARS coronavirus, definitively identifying the agent that caused SARS and providing a basis for both vaccine development and diagnostic testing.  The SARS experience showed the power that genome sciences can bring to revealing critically important molecular disease features, and Dr. Marra’s initiatives seek to apply this philosophy to topical problems in cancer research.  An episode of Dr. David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things was devoted to the promise of the BC Cancer Personalized OncoGenomics (POG) project and the hope it represents for treating advanced cancers. 

Recipient of numerous awards, participant in many conferences and committees, author of hundreds of articles, an editor, mentor, lecturer, and administrator, Dr. Marra is still very active in his career and will continue to extend the reach of the genome sciences in studying, managing, and eradicating disease.  The massive advances he and the GSC are achieving in knowledge will help unlock the full potential of the genome.