Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19

Accelerating cancer tissue biopsies and the detection of cancer tumours through AI and digital technology.

Project Overview

Updated March 31, 2023.

The Problem

Treatment of non-COVID health conditions and diseases has been severely impacted during the pandemic. 

For instance, cancer tissue biopsies were on hold for several months, delaying diagnosis and treatments for patients. In Ontario alone, it is estimated that cancer surgeries dropped 40 per cent in late March and early April compared to the same period in 2019, impacting at least 1,700 patients. Delays will continue even post-pandemic as health systems deal with the backlog in addition to new cases.

How We Are Solving It

Project ACTT — Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19 aims to speed up testing during the pandemic through a minimally invasive DNA test available for cancer patients — an alternative to surgical tissue biopsies.

The project is led by Canexia Health (formerly Contextual Genomics) in partnership with Queen’s University, AstraZeneca Canada, the Eastern Ontario Regional Laboratory Association, Genolife, Semaphore Solutions, emtelligent, Xtract AI, Novateur and Illumina.

The solution requires only a blood sample from the patient, which is then analyzed by powerful machine learning and artificial intelligence technology to detect fragments of DNA shed by cancer tumours. The current solution will be initially used to detect lung, breast and colon cancers. Project ACTT will make it possible to detect a broader range of cancer types, increasing the reach from 40,000 to 70,000 Canadian cancer patients each year.

Project ACTT will also test 2,000 patients to determine if the new testing could be delivered under provincial health coverage, making it possible to conduct tests in-house at Canadian hospitals and labs.

Further, through this program, healthcare workers and immune-compromised cancer patients can be protected from COVID-19 exposure because the tests can be delivered remotely. The new tests will also become more available to patients in rural and remote areas.

The Result

This project deployed a minimally invasive circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) test, known as liquid biopsy, as an alternative to some surgical tissue biopsies. The test was optimized through deep learning techniques and incorporated an automated treatment recommendation system that is interoperable with labs and healthcare data repositories. More than 800 Canadian cancer patients received testing since July 2020, with reportable findings identified for almost 50% of samples. The program had expanded across Canada, with samples from most provinces and approximately 11% from rural and remote areas.

Project Lead

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Project Partners

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  • queens university logo
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  • genolife logo
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  • nova scotia health authority logo
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  • semaphore logo
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