May 1, 2016

OICR invests in early-stage Ontario oncology drug development

OICR is supporting new early stage drug discovery research in Ontario, with a $1.2 million investment from OICR’s Drug Discovery Program into five promising oncology research projects selected through a province-wide call for proposals.

This was a new approach to selecting projects for the Drug Discovery team’s research pipeline and one that aligns well with the strategic direction of the team and the Institute, says Dr. Rima Al-awar, Director of OICR’s Drug Discovery Program.

“Traditionally we have relied on several means to generate interest from the community, including informal outreach to other institutions and word of mouth says Al-awar. She points to the recent success of BCL6, a drug target that OICR’s Drug Discovery team developed from early stage research by Dr. Gil Privé at University Health Network. Collaborating with Privé, the team brought the BCL6 project to the point where it attracted major investment from industry.

We are always looking to expand our research pipeline and we encourage anyone with an interesting project to contact us.
-Dr. Al-awar

“However, in order to fully leverage our capabilities within the community, we felt it was time to do a broad call for proposals to solicit new projects.”

The funded research focuses on different types of cancer, including blood, colon and breast cancer. The selected research projects are lead by:

  • Aaron Schimmer at the University Health Network;
  • Maria Rozakis at the University of Toronto;
  • Jeff Wrana at Mount Sinai Hospital;
  • Liliana Attisano at the University of Toronto;
  • David Andrews at Sunnybrook Health Sciences.

The funding fills a need in the Ontario research community, where there is a great deal of excellent early stage research. “Researchers are very much interested in the translational aspect of their work and appreciate the expertise the Drug Discovery team can bring to the table,” says Al-awar. “In turn, we rely on the depth of expertise they bring in a particular area.”

Dr. Jeff Wrana is leader of one of the selected projects. He says that part of the reason he applied to work with the Drug Discovery team is because of their tremendous experience in the drug development space.

“I’ve already learned a huge amount about critical strategic processes associated with a drug development program and learned that it’s not just about making lots of compounds,” he says. “There’s an intricate dance between driving efficacy, in vivo potency and choosing the right pre-clinical models, while also keeping an eye on downstream activities such as industrial partnering to move promising leads beyond the lab bench. They’ve been extremely willing to help out in many different ways, from providing advice to full-bore drug development activities.”

“It’s more than just handing over a cheque,” says Jeff O’Meara, Program Manager for the Drug Discovery Program and one of the key players in the call for proposal process. “This is about us working collaboratively together.”

O’Meara explains that while most academic researchers are experts in their area of research, they don’t necessarily have the experience to validate their early results, differentiating which leads are real, which aren’t, and which need to be further pursued. OICR can assist by bringing a new set of skills that builds upon the academic expertise and moves the project closer to the clinic.

The long term goal is that one or several of these projects will, like BCL6, graduate to a full-fledged drug discovery project that’s driven by OICR (or by others) and moved to the stage where more partners can be brought on board, or a company can be formed around the research.

We are excited and committed to bring our expertise to move it closer to the clinic. -Dr. Al-awar

“A lot of these projects are right now too early for industry to step in,” he says. “But if we can advance them a little further, their value to industry would be much higher.”

The team was very happy with the overall quality of all the submissions and feels there is still a lot of untapped potential to develop more projects in the province in the coming years. Despite the current funding round now being closed, O’Meara says more are planned for the future and emphasizes that the Drug Discovery Program is always open for collaboration.

Al-awar agrees. “We are always looking to expand our research pipeline and we encourage anyone with an interesting project to contact us. There is a great deal of excellent research in the province. We are excited and committed to bring our expertise to move it closer to the clinic.”