June 7, 2017

EAGLE will help cancer research soar

Dr. Hilary Edgington

 Researchers from OICR and other institutions have created a new software program called EAGLE that mines data to understand the interactions between a person’s environment and their genetics. The tool has far-reaching uses, including oncology, and can provide researchers and clinicians with important information that can help personalize treatments for patients.

To learn more we spoke to Dr. Hillary Edgington, a Postdoctoral Fellow in OICR’s Informatics technology platform, which is led by Dr. Lincoln Stein. Edgington and her collaborators recently shared their research in the journal Nature Methods.

What was reported in your recent article?

One of the most important goals in biological research is to understand the ways that our genes can be impacted by the environment around us. The activity of genes can change due to a number of external factors from medication use to air pollution. This study introduces a new software tool called EAGLE to investigate how interactions between a person’s genotype and environmental exposures affect the way his or her genes are expressed.

What is unique about EAGLE?

EAGLE takes advantage of the fact that sometimes the two copies of a gene are unequally expressed, which allows us to compare small differences in those two copies within an individual where they operate in the same environmental conditions. This tool was shown to improve, in both power and accuracy, on detecting associations over standard interaction testing methods. Using EAGLE to test for interactions in two large cohorts (the Depression Genes and Networks study cohort and CARTaGENE) revealed significant associations between gene expression and environmental variables, including depression, exercise, blood pressure medication use and body mass index. This information is critical in advancing personalized healthcare initiatives, as it gives researchers and clinicians information with which to predict an individual’s health risks based on their unique genomic profile and lifestyle factors.

How can these findings be used in the area of cancer?

EAGLE is a tool that can be applied to data from any source. The information gleaned from the application of EAGLE to data provided by cancer patients – including testing for interactions between patients’ specific mutational profiles and exposures such as therapeutic treatments, the microenvironment of the tumour, or properties of the immune system – could help clinicians make more accurate predictions about individual patients’ prognoses and therapeutic options in the future.

What challenges did you and your collaborators face while creating EAGLE?

One of the main challenges with developing any new method is making sure that the results will be consistent across different groups of individuals. It is critical to perform tests in different groups in order to make sure that there is replication of any findings. For this reason, collaboration between different research groups is critical, and this is what brought the groups from OICR and Stanford University together on this project. At OICR we were able to use the resources that we have through the CARTaGENE cohort to perform a replication study. It showed that the associations EAGLE detected in the Depression Genes and Networks cohort are consistent across populations.

What are the next steps planned with this research project?

We will be able to use EAGLE in many future projects as a way to discover previously unknown interactions between any environmental variable of interest and the regulation of genes. As a follow-up to this study we may look more specifically at the gene-environment associations we observed in order to determine what the mechanism is that causes differences in gene expression.

June 7, 2017

New grant program boosts molecular pathology research in Ontario

Two lab technicians work in a lab.

The Ontario Molecular Pathology Research Network (OMPRN) recently awarded $675,000 of funding to support molecular cancer pathology research in Ontario. The 11 funded projects will involve 22 investigators and seven trainees and address clinically-relevant questions in bladder, brain, breast, endometrial, cervical, renal, pediatric and hematological cancers. The 26 applications that were submitted for review demonstrate the high quality and rich diversity of cancer pathology research in the province. Please visit the Funded Projects page for more information.

OMPRN’s mission is to enhance molecular pathology research capacity across the province by fostering collaboration and cooperation between Ontario academic pathologists, increasing the participation of pathologists in high-quality translational cancer research, and providing opportunities for residents, fellows and early career pathologists to obtain training and mentorship in cancer research. In line with these objectives, all of the research projects funded through OMPRN’s Pathology Translational Research Grants (CPTRG) program are led by pathologists, address questions of clear relevance to cancer care and incorporate important elements of transdisciplinary collaboration and mentorship. Trainees and early career researchers involved in these projects will be supported in their research through attending regular meetings of OICR’s Pathology Club.

The next round of the CPTRG program will be announced in the fall of 2017. Information may be found here: https://ontariomolecularpathology.ca/research-funding

June 5, 2017

OICR donates sequencer to Fleming College for high-tech training

Individuals from OICR and Fleming College pose for a photo in front of the sequencer.

Fleming’s Biotechnology-Advanced students have received a significant boost to their career preparation with the help of The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). Their investment in people is recognized through a very generous donation of an Illumina HiSeq DNA Sequencer to the Biotechnology-Advanced program, a benefit to Fleming College valued at $600,000. This new equipment will provide students with hands-on experience using cutting-edge automated instruments that are utilized widely across the biotechnology industry.

“Some of the best technicians in OICR’s genomic labs are Fleming College graduates. We are proud to pay-it-forward by helping the College give future life sciences researchers in Ontario hands-on training opportunities on real genomics equipment.” says Paul Krzyzanowski, Program Manager of Genome Technologies, OICR. “Illumina equipment is the backbone of most sequencing labs and it’s essential for today’s students to become familiar with the complexity around these machines with hands-on experience.”

The remarkable relationship between OICR and Fleming College has flourished over the last nine years. With its state of the art facilities and research, OICR has become a highly sought after internship agency for Fleming students since the first placement student in 2008. The support from OICR and Illumina helps Fleming College to lead the way in biotechnology training; contributing to excellence in academic programming that includes relevant experiences. The hands-on learning creates a positive impact towards the future of Fleming students and alumni, the success of employers and especially those who benefit from cancer research.

“We are very grateful for the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research for their investment in our students,” says Biotechnology Program Coordinator Ashvin Mohindra. “OICR provides a practical training component through their in-kind gifts and placement opportunities for our students. With their help, we are also pleased to meet OICRs employment needs which is proven with the hiring of more than 18 Fleming College graduates to fill their high-tech positions.”

The in-kind donation would have not been possible without the tireless effort of OICR and Illumina, the sequencer manufacturer and third party liquid handler software provider. The College would like to specifically recognize and thank everyone at OICR who made these donations possible (Lee Timms, Jessica Miller, Paul Krzyzanowski, Tom Hudson, Mike Kostiuk, Susan Hockley, Jeremy Johns, and Howard Simkevitz) and the staff at Illumina for their tireless help and expertise in setting up the equipment (Lisa Lock, Peter Ayache and Mike Ramsey).

OICR, a global leader in healthcare, research and innovation, is dedicated to exploring the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Their commitment to exploring cancer extends beyond the lab; OICR invests in people who can make novel discoveries.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Fleming Ties magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of Fleming College. The original can be found here (PDF): https://flemingcollege.ca/PDF/FlemingTies/fleming-ties-spring-2017.pdf

June 5, 2017

Ontarians come together to help Ontario Health Study collect 41,000 blood samples

Ontario Health Study logo

The samples will be combined with data from OHS’s online questionnaire to help researchers in the fight against chronic disease.

With the help of dedicated Ontarians across the province, The Ontario Health Study (OHS) has finished its blood collection phase, bringing the total number of samples donated by participants to over 41,000. This happened just in time to help the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, of which the OHS is part, reach the 150,000-sample mark for Canada’s 150th birthday.

Now the OHS is focusing on updating and augmenting its data from 230,000 Ontario participants who have completed the OHS online questionnaire to date (participants who provide a blood sample also had to complete the questionnaire). The OHS will be sending out follow-up questionnaires that will gather additional important details on the health and lifestyle of participants. The combination of data gathered from the blood sample collection program and the questionnaires will be used to generate information to help researchers fight chronic diseases such as cancer.

“In early February we let Study participants know that we were nearing the end of our blood collection program and the response from participants looking to donate before it ended was outstanding,” says Ms. Kelly McDonald, Program Manager of the OHS. “I think the fact that people were motivated by this deadline shows how interested the public is in helping health research and being part of something positive.”

The follow up questionnaires will help to make the information collected so far even more relevant for researchers by adding new fields and tracking developments in participant’s health and behaviour. “There are areas where we could use more information,” says McDonald. “We can now address ‘blind spots’ such as the use of over-the-counter medications, marijuana and e-cigarettes.”

The OHS database would be a powerful resource on its own, but the Study has taken steps to make it even more useful for scientists. They are working on cleaning up the data to eliminate inconsistencies and are linking OHS data with those at the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences and Cancer Care Ontario, which hold OHIP claims records and the Ontario Cancer Registry.

The OHS is currently working to increase awareness amongst researchers about the availability of its samples and data, and some researchers are already taking advantage of its potential. A group of Toronto-based researchers have used OHS data in a study looking at the mental health status of ethnocultural minorities in Ontario and their mental health care. In addition, another study called the Canadian Alliance for Healthy Hearts and Minds included OHS participants as a partner cohort.

OHS data will also be supporting research in several of OICR’s new Translational Research Initiatives, which were announced on May 25, 2017.

More information about the Study and further updates can be found at https://ontariohealthstudy.ca/

May 31, 2017

Study highlights effectiveness of worldwide tobacco control treaty

World No Tobacco Day

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco is used by over 1 billion people and is the number one preventable cause of death and disease. Tobacco—especially smoked tobacco—causes 30 per cent of the world’s cancer cases and so tobacco control is the number one strategy for preventing cancer. Tobacco use kills six million people a year. It also brings a staggering economic cost of US$1 trillion a year in health care expenditures and lost productivity.

The WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC) is a treaty that was created to combat the global tobacco epidemic. Currently, 179 countries and the European Union have joined the treaty, which obligates countries covering about 90 per cent of the world’s population to implement a set of strong evidence-based measures to reduce tobacco use. The FCTC is, in effect, the most extensive cancer prevention effort in history. The FCTC recently marked ten years since its coming into force. But how much impact have these measures made? A research team centered at the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project (the ITC Project), University of Waterloo (UW), recently published a study that demonstrated the positive impact of the FCTC on smoking rates.

Dr. Shannon Gravely, Research Assistant Professor at UW, was the lead author on the study, which was published in Lancet Public Health in March. The study examined how the implementation of five key FCTC tobacco policies affected smoking prevalence across 126 countries. “We looked at the highest-level implementation (i.e. fully satisfying the requirements of the FCTC) of these measures between 2007-2014 and the smoking prevalence estimates for the first 10 years of the FCTC, from 2005 to 2015,” says Gravely. “We found a strong and statistically significant association between the number of these FCTC measures and decreases in smoking rates.”

The five tobacco demand-reduction measures studied by the ITC Project team were: 1) Taxation; 2) Smoke-free policies; 3) Warning labels; 4) Bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and 5) Cessation programs. The researchers found that with each additional measure implemented at its highest level, countries experienced an average decline in smoking prevalence of 1.57 percentage points, or a relative decrease of 7.09 per cent.

“It is indeed good news that the FCTC measures are associated with decreasing the number of smokers, but the bad news is that few countries are actually implementing these effective measures,” says Gravely. Only a fifth of the countries covered in the study had implemented taxes on tobacco at the highest levels called for under the treaty. “We found this to be particularly worrisome as it is known that increasing the price of tobacco via taxes is the most effective way to reduce tobacco use,” says Gravely. In fact, none of the five key FCTC policies had been implemented by even half of the countries.

“Overall, the study found that these measures, when implemented at their highest levels are very effective at reducing smoking rates,” comments Gravely. “Our findings highlight the importance of tobacco control measures in improving global health by directly decreasing the rates of smoking thus in turn indirectly reducing tobacco-attributed-non-communicable diseases.”

Dr. Geoffrey Fong, Professor of Psychology and Public Health and Health Systems at UW and OICR Senior Investigator, is Chief Principal Investigator of the ITC Project. Fong, a co-author of the article, commented, “This study should be a call to arms for governments to strengthen and accelerate their efforts to fully implement the FCTC secure in knowing that such efforts will significantly reduce the devastation caused by tobacco products in their countries.”

May 25, 2017

OICR launches five all-star teams of Ontario scientists to tackle some of the deadliest forms of cancer

People from the press conference

Great strides have been made in cancer research, but much work remains to develop better treatments for the most lethal cancers and to advance new anti-cancer technologies. OICR is taking on a new approach, building on the success of the Institute’s first ten years and Ontario’s strength in particular cancer research areas. Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science announced that the Institute is funding five collaborative, cross-disciplinary and inter-institutional Translational Research Initiatives (TRIs) with a total of $24 million over the next two years.

The TRIs will bring together some of the top cancer researchers in Ontario and be led by internationally renowned Ontario scientists. Each team will focus on a certain type of cancer or therapeutic technology. To maximize the positive impact of research on patients, the TRIs all incorporate clinical trials into their design. The TRIs, which were selected by an International Scientific Review Panel, are:

The funding will also support Early Prostate Cancer Developmental Projects led by Drs. Paul Boutros and George Rodriguez.

“In just over 10 years, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research has become a global centre of excellence that is moving the province to the forefront of discovery and innovation in cancer research. It is home to outstanding Ontario scientists, who are working together to ease the burden of cancer in our province and around the world,” said Moridi.

“Collaboration and translational research are key to seeing that the innovative technologies being developed in Ontario reach the clinic and help patients,” said Mr. Peter Goodhand, President of OICR. “These TRIs represent a unique and significant opportunity to impact clinical cancer care in the province.”

Read the news release: OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

May 25, 2017

OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

Minister for Research, Innovation and Science

Toronto (May 25, 2017) – Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, today announced the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research is launching five unique, cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional Translational Research Initiatives (TRIs), each focused on a single type of or treatment approach to cancer. With $24 million in funding over two years, the TRIs will bring together world-leading scientists to tackle some of the most difficult to treat cancers and test innovative solutions to some of the most serious challenges in cancer today.

The TRIs build on Ontario’s proven strengths in areas such as stem cells, immuno-oncology, pediatric cancers, genomics, clinical trials and informatics. Working together, the province’s top scientists and clinicians will accelerate the development of much needed solutions for patients around the globe, with a focus on acute leukemia and brain, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Each TRI includes clinical trials to maximize patient impact.

Continue reading – OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

May 8, 2017

Interview: Mr. Peter Goodhand, President of OICR

Peter Goodhand

OICR is pleased to announce that Mr. Peter Goodhand is OICR’s new President for a one-year term. Goodhand served as Interim President of OICR over the past 10 months, in addition to his role as Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH). We spoke to Goodhand about why he took on the new, expanded job, how it differs from his previous role, what this means for the search for a permanent OICR President and Scientific Director and what he’s planning for the next year at OICR.

Continue reading – Interview: Mr. Peter Goodhand, President of OICR

May 3, 2017

Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients

 

A technician holds a blood sample and writes down information.

The advent of genomic sequencing and targeted therapies has opened the door to new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer. The Ontario-wide Cancer Targeted Nucleic Acid Evaluation (OCTANE) program is a new, province-wide initiative supported by OICR that will allow more patients to benefit from these innovations while also helping to advance cancer research in Ontario.

Continue reading – Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients

April 26, 2017

Clinical trial opens for promising combination therapy

Rhabdovirus

The first patient has been treated in what has been named the Sandpiper Trial. The Phase I/II clinical trial will evaluate a therapy that combines a novel oncolytic viral immunotherapy agent called MG1-MAGEA3 with pembrolizumab, which is an approved checkpoint inhibitor. The Sandpiper Trial will study the use of this combination therapy in patients with non-small cell lung cancer who are no longer responding to chemotherapy.

Continue reading – Clinical trial opens for promising combination therapy

April 26, 2017

OICR marches in support of science

OICR march banner

On April 22 (Earth Day), 3,000 people joined the March for Science, gathering at Nathan Philips Square and marching to Queen’s Park where they heard from a number of speakers representing the breadth of research here in Canada. Speakers talked of the impact of actions in United States, which affect the global scientific community, but also why having a voice for Canadian science and evidence-based policy, at home, is important for scientists and the public they serve. Marchers also heard how the scientific community can do better to represent all perspectives in that voice and why the practice of science cannot be divorced from the people who conduct it or the context in which it sits.

Continue reading – OICR marches in support of science

April 25, 2017

Dr. John Dick presented with CIHR Gold Leaf Award for Discovery

Dr. John Dick

Dr. John Dick was recognized for his pioneering research in cancer stem cells with the presentation of the CIHR Gold Leaf Award for Discovery. He was the first scientist in the world to confirm their existence. Better understanding of cancer stem cells has the potential to lead to new treatments, ultimately resulting in improved patient outcomes.

Continue reading – Dr. John Dick presented with CIHR Gold Leaf Award for Discovery