September 16, 2020

Scientists discover mechanism of bone loss caused by acute lymphocytic leukemia, identify targeted therapy for children

Two young girls play in a pile of autumn leaves.

OICR-supported research team discovers new pathway through which leukemia cells damage bone and a treatment that may protect children with leukemia from these effects

Due to remarkable progress in the treatment of pediatric leukemias with multi-drug chemotherapy, upwards of 85 per cent of children with the disease survive. One consequence of this success, is that more than a third of these patients suffer from in-bone fractures and pain during leukemia and for years following their treatment. In a recent study, Ontario researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have discovered a process by which leukemia cells damage bone and discover that a targeted therapy may be able to prevent this damage.

In their study, published in Science Translational Medicine, the research group discovered that the bone degradation in leukemia patients is triggered by a protein called RANKL on the surface of the leukemic cells interacting with receptors called RANK on the surface of bone-degrading cells. The group showed that a drug, which is similar to one that is currently in clinical trials for other cancers, could specifically block this RANKL-RANK interaction and prevent further bone damage.

“A pan-Canadian study demonstrated that 15 per cent of children display bone fractures at the time they are diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL,” says lead author Dr. Jayne Danska, Senior Scientist in the Genetics & Genome Biology program at SickKids and Associate Chief, Faculty Development and Diversity at the SickKids Research Institute. “In addition, standard ALL chemotherapy protocols include corticosteroids which further damage the bone. Survivors of childhood ALL experience fractures and pain, and some cases are so severe that they require a hip replacement in their teenage years. We have discovered one mechanism that contributes to ALL-associated bone damage and a potential way to prevent it.”

To make these discoveries, first author of the study, Dr. Sujeetha Rajakumar, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, transplanted ALL cells from patient donors into experimental mouse models to examine the effect of leukemia cells on bone and how to disrupt the RANKL-RANK interaction. This so-called xenotransplantation method was pioneered by Dr. John Dick at the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Using these animal models, Danska’s group showed that treatment of the ALL-transplanted mice with a protein therapeutic that blocks the RANKL-RANK interaction prevented bone damage despite high number of leukemia cells in the bone compartments.

“There are clinical trials underway to test whether RANKL-RANK antagonists can prevent bone degradation in adults with metastatic prostate and breast cancers,” says Danska, who is also a Professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. “The data we report in the human ALL transplant model is encouraging because the availability of clinical data with this class of drug can accelerate application of our discoveries to clinical trials in youth with ALL.”

“Children with leukemia sustain unbelievably rigorous and lengthy chemotherapy treatments,” says Danska. “We’re eager to bring our discoveries into clinical trials that may help minimize these painful and life-altering late effects of this disease.”

Danska and study collaborators Drs. Cynthia Guidos and Johann Hitzler of SickKids, and Drs. Mark Minden and John Dick of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre are members of OICR’s Acute Leukemia Translational Research Initiative (TRI), which partially funded the study.

Read more about the Acute Leukemia TRI or more about OICR’s latest leukemia research news.

September 16, 2020

CanPath Completes Provincial Map with Addition of a Saskatchewan Cohort

This post was republished with the permission of CanPath. The original post can be viewed here: https://canpath.ca/2020/09/canpath-completes-provincial-map-with-addition-of-a-saskatchewan-cohort/

CanPath is pleased to announce that, with funding support from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, a Saskatchewan cohort will be developed and join the CanPath study. The Saskatchewan Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (Saskatchewan PATH) will add approximately 9,000 participants to the existing cohort of over 330,000 Canadian participants, and will complete the provincial CanPath map.

Saskatchewan PATH will create a platform and resource for fostering research in cancer and chronic disease prevention within the province. The Saskatchewan PATH study will be led by Scientific Director, Riaz Alvi and hosted by the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.

“We are excited to officially welcome Mr. Alvi and the Saskatchewan PATH team to the CanPath partnership. We look forward to working together to develop a truly pan-Canadian study and sharing learnings from our other regional cohorts to support Saskatchewan PATH as they move forward,” says John McLaughlin, Executive Director of CanPath.

 “We are proud to be a part of this truly national program.  Saskatchewan holds a prominent place in the history of healthcare in Canada, and houses one of the world’s oldest cancer registries.  We are confident that the people of Saskatchewan will welcome this opportunity to participate in Saskatchewan PATH to help further a better understanding of cancer and other chronic diseases, and to assist with the future development of prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment programs.  There is exciting and highly rewarding work ahead of us.” says Riaz Alvi, Scientific Director of Saskatchewan PATH.

Saskatchewan has a unique and diverse population, with roughly half living in the province’s largest city, Saskatoon, or the provincial capital of Regina. The province’s economy is primarily associated with agriculture and more recently mining. The burden of cancer in Saskatchewan is significant with about 5,600 new cancers diagnosed in 2018 and just over 2,000 cancer deaths in the same year. In 2018, the number of people living with cancer that had been diagnosed within the last 5 years (5-year prevalence), was approximately 17,000 people.

“Since CanPath began almost 11 years ago, we have sought to ensure representation of all provinces. Now being able to include participants from the province of Saskatchewan fills an important gap, and builds upon the hard work of many of us who started and have maintained the CanPath cohort and vision since the beginning,” says Philip Awadalla, National Scientific Director for CanPath.

With CanPath’s guidance and support of the development of Saskatchewan PATH, the new cohort will benefit from the experience and lessons learned by CanPath’s other regional cohorts. Saskatchewan PATH joins the six regional cohorts that currently makeup CanPath: BC Generations Project, Alberta’s Tomorrow Project, Manitoba Tomorrow Project, Ontario Health Study, CARTaGENE (Quebec), and Atlantic PATH.

The development of Saskatchewan PATH will consist of three phases:

  • Phase I – Planning & Implementation (Present to March 2022)
  • Phase II – Participant Recruitment and Collection of Data and Biological Samples
  • Phase III – Maintenance and Use of Participant Data and Biological Samples

About CanPath

The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (CanPath) is Canada’s largest population health cohort and a national platform for health research. Comprised of more than 330,000 volunteer participants, CanPath is a unique platform that allows scientists to explore how genetics, environment, lifestyle and behaviour interact and contribute to the development of cancer and other chronic diseases. CanPath is hosted by the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health with national funding from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) hosts CanPath data in a safe and secure environment. To learn more, visit www.canpath.ca.

September 10, 2020

Deploying liquid biopsies to improve cancer screening and care during COVID-19

OICR-supported researcher Dr. Harriet Feilotter leads liquid biopsy research program

Dr. Harriet Feilotter, Molecular Geneticist and Scientist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, faculty member of Queen’s Cancer Research Institute and OICR Associate.

Adapted from Canexia Health’s news release and Patriot One Technologies’ news release.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many areas of life, including the diagnosis and treatment of other health conditions, people have chosen to forgo cancer screening and care in attempt to minimize their potential exposure to the virus. Relative to the general population, people living with cancer are more susceptible to the virus, but delaying cancer treatment may allow the disease to grow or spread.

Dr. Harriet Feilotter has teamed up with members of the pan-Canadian Digital Technology Supercluster to bring greater access to cancer testing and treatment during the pandemic and beyond. Through the $2.59 million Project ACTT (Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19), they aim to provide liquid biopsy solutions, which require only a simple blood draw, as alternatives to surgical tissue biopsies for cancer diagnosis and care.

“The goal is to allow patients alternatives to invasive procedures that may be difficult to access during a pandemic,” says Feilotter, Molecular Geneticist and Scientist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, faculty member of Queen’s Cancer Research Institute and OICR Associate. “Not only would this benefit those patients who live far from large cancer centres, but it could limit patient exposure to COVID-19 and increase health system capacity.”

The collaborative team is led in part by Canexia Health, which develops specialized cancer genomic assays, and Patriot One Technologies Inc.’s subsidiary Xtract AI, which specializes in machine learning solutions across a variety of applications, among other private and public partners. Together, they will work to enhance their current tests that detect mutations in circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) from blood and deploy these tests for multiple cancer types across Canada.

Now through ACTT, some patients have access to these tests in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan. The long-term objective is to increase access across the country.

“The development of liquid biopsies and ctDNA testing has been accelerated by this pandemic,” says Feilotter. “We’re proud to team up in this cross-disciplinary, cross-sector collaboration to bring these promising solutions to more patients.”

Read Canexia Health’s news release or Patriot One Technologies’ news release

September 3, 2020

Analyzing SARS-CoV-2: A cancer researcher trainee’s perspective

OICR-based PhD Candidate awarded University of Toronto COVID-19 Student Engagement Award

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Credit: NIAID-RML
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Credit: NIAID-RML

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down labs across Canada, cancer research trainees looked for ways to help respond to the pandemic. PhD candidates Tom Ouellette and Jim Shaw saw an opportunity to combine their skills and contribute to the cause.

Ouellette and Shaw were recently awarded a University of Toronto COVID-19 Student Engagement Award for their project titled Network and evolutionary analysis of SARS-CoV-2: A vaccine perspective. Together, they will develop new machine learning tools to analyze the SARS-CoV-2 genome and how it evolves. 

Tom Ouellette, PhD Candidate in Dr. Philip Awadalla’s lab at OICR.

“We’re two like-minded individuals with complementary skillsets who enjoy coding, math and solving problems, which – fortunately – can be done remotely,” says Ouellette, who is a PhD Candidate in Dr. Philip Awadalla’s lab at OICR. “We saw the opportunity to help with COVID-19 research and we’re happy to apply our skills to help advance research towards new solutions for this pressing problem.”

Ouellette specializes in evolution and population genetics and Shaw specializes in network analysis and algorithm development. Through this award, they will investigate how SARS-CoV-2 is evolving by looking into specific regions of the virus’ genetic code from samples around the world, using mathematical modelling, machine learning, and evolutionary simulations. They are specifically interested in how these changes in the genetic code may alter the virulence, or severity, of the virus.

Jim Shaw, PhD Candidate in mathematics at the University of Toronto.

“Just like cancer, different pressures or stresses can make viruses evolve,” says Shaw, who is a PhD Candidate in mathematics at the University of Toronto. “Understanding these changes can have an impact on how we build vaccines. Furthermore, better understanding of the virus’ evolution may shed light on viral reinfection, which is an important issue as we move into the later stages of the pandemic.”

Ouellette and Shaw plan to publicly release the code that they develop through this initiative for other researchers to build upon.

“SARS-CoV-2 has a much simpler genome than a cancer genome, so it can serve as a simplified model to test out new analytical techniques,” says Ouellette. “Ultimately, I hope to bring the tools and technology we create back into my research on cancer so we can better understand how cancer evolves and becomes resistant to treatment.”

Read more on how OICR researchers are helping understand and overcome COVID-19

August 31, 2020

Research from home: Kelly McDonald

Learn about the research that the Ontario Health Study has been doing during COVID-19 and how scientists have managed to do this work from home.

July 21, 2020

OICR Drug Discovery awarded for COVID-19 research

OICR researchers and collaborators awarded $520,000 in new funding for COVID-19 drug discovery project

Dr. Gennady Poda
Dr. Gennady Poda, OICR Scientific Advisor and Group Leader

OICR Scientific Advisor and Group Leader, Dr. Gennady Poda, and collaborators at Sunnybrook Research Institute have been awarded $520,000 to identify new therapeutics and existing drugs that could be repurposed for the treatment of COVID-19. This award, which was announced on July 17 by Premier Doug Ford, is part of the Government of Ontario’s $20 million COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund.

Using OICR supercomputers and advanced computational chemistry techniques, Poda and collaborators aim to identify drugs that can stop the virus from replicating in the body by targeting the virus’ key polymerase enzyme, RdRP.

“We’ll be looking for new potential drugs to treat the COVID-19 infections by rapidly identifying approved drugs and compounds that are in clinical trials that could inhibit RdRP,” says Poda. “We will advance the most promising compounds into preclinical animal models and, if the data is promising, into patients.”

Continue reading – OICR Drug Discovery awarded for COVID-19 research

June 29, 2020

New radiotherapy method improves long-term survival

OICR Investigator-led phase II clinical trial shows long-term advantage of ablative therapy for patients with multiple tumours. Technology enters phase III clinical testing.

Varian TruBeam®
© 2010 Varian Medical Systems International AG, All Rights Reserved

For a long time, if a cancer had spread to another part of a patient’s body, it was thought to be incurable. Dr. David Palma and collaborators are challenging this notion.

In the phase II SABR-COMET clinical trial, Palma and colleagues evaluated the long-term effects of a modern type of radiotherapy, called stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR), on individuals with cancers that have spread to a few organs. The results from the trial, which were recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, show that SABR can extend the lives of these patients by a median of 22 months with an improvement in five-year survival of 25 per cent.

Continue reading – New radiotherapy method improves long-term survival

June 24, 2020

Philanthropic donation moves The Alex U. Soyka Pancreatic Cancer Research Project: An International Partnership into Phase II

Ontario-Israel collaboration to explore personalized treatment and improved diagnostics for pancreatic cancer

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Toronto – (June 24, 2020) A second significant multi-year commitment from Sylvia M. G. Soyka, Director, and the Alex U. Soyka Foundation to the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CFHU) will allow researchers from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), the Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC) and Sheba Medical Center to conduct The Alex U. Soyka Pancreatic Cancer Research Project: Phase II – An International Partnership (Soyka Project).

Phase II builds upon the outstanding achievements of Phase I of the Soyka Project by fostering further collaboration between Israeli and Ontario researchers, focusing on three main research avenues in pancreatic cancer – to develop effective patient-specific treatment courses, address the challenges of tumour cell heterogeneity and create new methods for early-stage diagnosis.

As a measure of its impact so far, Phase I of the Soyka Project has been cited in more than 18 peer-reviewed papers on pancreatic cancer including manuscripts in the prestigious journals Nature Genetics, Nature Medicine and Cancer Cell.  Phase II of the Soyka Project will provide eight of Israel’s leading cancer researchers with funds to explore the molecular origins of pancreatic cancer, as well as novel diagnostic biomarkers and therapeutic approaches. These fellowships are key to the multi-disciplinary approach of the Soyka Project and this round of funding will see new scientists joining the team with expertise in single-cell RNA sequencing and bioinformatics, some of the most advanced approaches used in cancer research today.

A central component of Phase II is to increase the opportunity for patients at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel to be molecularly profiled according to the COMPASS clinical trial guidelines. COMPASS is a world-leading initiative led by Dr. Steven Gallinger, supported by OICR and based at the University Health Network in Toronto, that uses genomic and transcriptomic information from patient tumours to personalize treatment with the aim of improving outcomes. The data collected through COMPASS will also be used by Soyka Project scientists to dig deep into the inner workings of pancreatic cancer.

“I feel proud and privileged to fund Phase II of this international collaboration in pancreatic cancer research,” says Sylvia M. G. Soyka. “In the world of cancer research, much progress has been made in recent years, but pancreatic cancer remains a deadly disease with a dismal less than 10% five-year survival rate. When we started Phase I in 2014, the five-year survival rate was less than 5%, but there is clearly a long way to go. In 2010, my father, a man fully engaged in every aspect of life who took great pains to look after his health, the sort of person who was going to live well forever, was diagnosed out of the blue and died three months to the day later. The Soyka Project is his legacy. Phase I was highly successful, in no small part due to the collaboration of the dedicated scientists, within and between the teams, which created new directions. In the context of today’s world, I feel strongly that the fact of the collaboration alone, which requires both trust and generosity of spirit, sets an important example which should be emulated. The rewards of Phase II will be ours as well as theirs.”

“I am extremely thankful to Sylvia Soyka for her generous funding of this cutting-edge research program. Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to detect and treat and patients need better options,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director, OICR. “The Soyka Project is an incredible example of the benefits of international scientific collaboration that will reveal important insights into detecting pancreatic cancer earlier and developing precision medicine tools for improved treatment. We are thrilled to continue this important work with our partners in Israel.”

“Sylvia Soyka is the driving force and inspiration behind The Alex U. Soyka Pancreatic Cancer Research Project that started six years ago and now, her recent generous donation will allow the second phase of research,” says Prof. Haya Lorberboum-Galski, Chair of IMRIC. “Her longstanding support is of vast importance to the researchers at IMRIC as it will enable us to continue our ongoing endeavour to decipher the basic molecular aspects of one of the deadliest cancers – pancreatic cancer. We hope this exciting work, in collaboration with OICR, will lead to new approaches for early diagnosis, prevention, treatment and a cure.”

“Sylvia Soyka is an exemplary philanthropic leader who decided to tackle one of the most challenging and underfunded cancers,” says Rami Kleinmann, President and CEO of CFHU. “Together with an outstanding team of researchers and practitioners from Canada and Israel, she managed to help make substantial progress in understanding the disease. We hope that with the current funding of Phase II, we will be able to take it even further.”

About The Alex U. Soyka Pancreatic Cancer Research Project: Phase II – An International Partnership (Soyka Project)

Alex U. Soyka was a committed supporter of the Hebrew University through the CFHU in Montreal. Following his death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, his daughter Sylvia M. G. Soyka, Director, and the Alex U. Soyka Foundation, made a multi-year funding commitment to CFHU to launch The Alex U. Soyka Pancreatic Cancer Research Project.

About the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR)
OICR is a collaborative, not-for-profit research institute funded by the Government of Ontario. We conduct and enable high-impact translational cancer research to accelerate the development of discoveries for patients around the world while maximizing the economic benefit of this research for the people of Ontario. For more information visit https://oicr.on.ca/

About the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC)

The Institute conducts basic and translational/precision research in the field of biomedicine with a main focus on cancer research. The Institute scientists work in a multidisciplinary enterprise that is essential for understanding most of the diseases that currently challenge medical science, including cancer, for the benefit of patients all over the world. For more information visit https://medicine.ekmd.huji.ac.il/En/academicUnits/imric/Pages/Default.aspx

About the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU)

CFHU facilitates academic and research partnerships between Canada and Israel, as well as establishes scholarships, supports research and cultivates student and faculty exchanges. Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann and Sigmund Freud were among the university’s founders whose genius inspired a university without limits or borders. CFHU is dedicated to supporting Hebrew University in its efforts to remain one of the most innovative learning institutions in the world.

OICR media contact
Christopher Needles
Director, Communications
Ontario Institute for Cancer Research
416-319-5252
christopher.needles@oicr.on.ca

CFHU media contact
Robert Sarner
Senior National Director, Communication
Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University
416-485-8000, Ext. 111
rsarner@cfhu.org

June 23, 2020

FACIT backs made-in-Ontario data science and medtech innovations through Prospects Oncology Fund

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Replica Analytics & Sunnybrook’s Czarnota Lab receive key seed funding to de-risk Ontario intellectual property

TORONTO, ON (June 23, 2020) – FACIT, a commercialization venture firm, announced the newest recipients of Ontario First seed capital through the latest round of its Prospects Oncology Fund: Ottawa-based data science start-up Replica Analytics Ltd., and medtech innovator Dr. Greg Czarnota of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute.

Replica Analytics Ltd. is a new venture created by Dr. Khaled El Emam, a serial entrepreneur whose previous venture, FACIT-backed Privacy Analytics, was acquired by IMS Health. Replica Analytics is developing modeling software to create synthetic data based on real clinical datasets. High quality synthetic data is increasingly sought after by researchers, the pharmaceutical industry, and other entrepreneurs who require the datasets to build new models and enable AI innovation in healthcare.

Continue reading – FACIT backs made-in-Ontario data science and medtech innovations through Prospects Oncology Fund

June 17, 2020

Inside OICR’s Drug Discovery Lab: A graduate student’s unique collaborative experience

An open-science brain cancer drug development initiative makes for a memorable master’s experience

Deeba Ensan

Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is a complex, lethal and inoperable type of childhood brain cancer with a median survival of less than a year from diagnosis. Not only is DIPG difficult to treat, it is also extremely rare, making it a particularly challenging disease to study. Given this challenge, those studying DIPG have come together from around the world to find new solutions together.

When University of Toronto master’s student Deeba Ensan heard that OICR was contributing to DIPG research, she was eager to help. Over the last two years, Ensan has made considerable progress towards a new drug for DIPG.

Continue reading – Inside OICR’s Drug Discovery Lab: A graduate student’s unique collaborative experience

June 9, 2020

New findings pave the way for future brain cancer research and drug development

The future of brain cancer research

OICR-supported study finds key mechanisms driving a severe form of brain cancer affecting infants and toddlers

When a young child is diagnosed with ependymoma, their treatment options are limited to surgery and radiation therapy – the latter of which causes severe side effects to the developing brain. Despite several clinical trials, scientists have yet to identify life-extending chemotherapies for this type of brain cancer.

In an OICR-supported study recently published in Cell, a research team at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) re-examined how scientists have been studying ependymoma and invented new ways to model the disease. Their work has uncovered key mechanisms behind these tumours and new approaches to treat them.

Lead authors Dr. Antony Michealraj and Sachin Kumar, who are both members of Dr. Michael Taylor’s lab, discussed these promising findings with OICR News.

What spurred this research question?

Dr. Antony Michealraj.

AM: Unfortunately, treatment options for young children with ependymoma are very limited. Radiation treatments led to severe side effects and the disease often returns, so we are very motivated to develop new therapies for these infants and toddlers.

Our previous research showed that these brain tumours emerge very early in a child’s development and, remarkably, there are no specific genetic mutations that are known to cause these tumours. Instead, these tumours possess a unique way of regulating what genes are on or off – a unique epigenetic profile.

We observed that patient tumours have an enriched hypoxia (oxygen level) signature which is correlated with poor survival. These unusual scenarios pushed us to study how hypoxia and epigenetics are linked in ependymoma to search for potential solutions.

How did you approach this challenge and what did you find?

AM: The first problem that we faced was the availability of relevant disease models. What we realized was that we could not study the disease unless it was in a very specific environment with fine-tuned oxygen levels. In the body, these cancer cells only grow in low oxygen and we needed to mimic such an environment. Once we did so, we ended up with an exceptional experimental model of ependymoma that nobody has been able to create before.

These models allowed us to study the microenvironment of ependymoma cells. We saw that the cellular metabolism, or how a cell consumes and uses nutrients, was responsible for the epigenetic dysregulation seen in patients. Using an array of metabolic and epigenetic inhibitors, targeting these pathways destroyed ependymomas, providing an avenue for novel therapeutic interventions.  

Sachin Kumar.

SK: One exciting finding was what we call our “Goldilocks” model. The key was histone lysine methylation – a process regulating how DNA is wrapped and coiled in a cell. Ependymoma cells require a very fine balance of histone lysine methylation, and too much or too little results in the cells dying.

By studying how to keep these cells alive, we learned how we could potentially eliminate them. The idea would be to find or repurpose drugs that target these pathways within the body, creating an unfavorable environment and eliminating them for good.

How can we translate these discoveries into new therapies for patients?

SK: With our new knowledge of the key molecular pathways involved in ependymoma, we can now look to develop specific compounds – or potential drugs – that can alter these pathways, disrupt the cancer cell’s environment, and prevent these tumours from growing. These compounds may include drugs that are already in clinical studies or completely new molecules. What’s great is that now we have a model that we can use to screen these drugs more effectively.

AM: We can screen FDA-approved drug libraries on these disease models which will enable us find potential chemotherapies rapidly. Since there are currently no approved medicines that work for this type of brain cancer, if we find a drug that works, it could potentially become the standard of care for this disease around the world.

We hope that these findings pave the way for future therapy development. Although we’re in the very early stages of developing any new drugs, we understand how important this work is to the children and families affected by the disease. We’re committed to finding new solutions for them.

Read more about our achievements in brain cancer research on OICR News.

June 2, 2020

Q&A with new OICR investigator Dr. Hartland Jackson on the latest in mass cytometry, single-cell imaging and his return to Canada

Dr. Hartland Jackson.

OICR welcomes Dr. Hartland Jackson back to Toronto as Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and OICR’s newest investigator

While he was a doctoral student developing experimental models of breast cancer, Dr. Hartland Jackson recognized the enormous potential impact of multiplexed imaging and single-cell technologies. If we could see how different cells interact within a tumour, what could we discover?

This question fueled his research over the last half decade, taking him to Switzerland to develop advanced imaging methods alongside experts at the University of Zurich. Now, returning to Canada, Dr. Jackson plans to collaborate across disciplines and sectors to apply this technology to solve more scientific and clinical questions. Here, he discusses his goal of bringing the benefits of this technology to more patients in Ontario and around the world.

What was your main research focus in Switzerland?

HJ: In a nutshell, I was developing a new technology, called imaging mass cytometry, which allows us to visualize and analyze tumour samples in more detail than ever before.

When I joined the research group at the University of Zurich, they had developed a prototype imaging system. My role was to take this system and be the first to apply it to a clinical problem. Ultimately, I helped shepherd the system from a prototype to a commercial product that is now used around the world.

What clinical application did you focus on?

HJ: I focused on investigating how this technology could help in the diagnosis and prognosis of breast cancer. Through this process, we made a lot of progress in developing analysis methods and optimizing the system. Whereas traditional imaging methods could see three or four markers on a cell, our system allows us to see 40 markers at the same time. With this technology and imaging system, we could visualize how different cells were organized within a sample, which revealed new types of breast cancer.

In addition to this discovery, my work showed that imaging mass cytometry can reveal information within clinical samples – meaning information that may be useful for patients. We pushed the boundary on what can be done with this system and now it’s used around the world to study different human diseases.

Interestingly, the technology that I was working on was an adaptation of an earlier technology developed in Toronto by DVS Sciences, which was supported in part by OICR. My plan was to work with the imaging experts in Switzerland and bring these developments back to the place where the technology was created and is now manufactured as a commercial product by Fluidigm.

Is that what brought you back to Canada?

HJ: Yes, one of the reasons I’ve returned to Canada is to bring this expertise back to Toronto. In addition to that, the research community here is very impressive. The universities, research institutes and hospitals are all tightly knit. This makes for an excellent environment to develop new technologies that can address clinical health challenges. I find that researchers here are like-minded in their goals and collaborative spirit. We enjoy working through technical challenges and delving into the mysteries of cell biology, and – at the same time – working on research that really matters to patients.

What will your future research focus on?

HJ: I plan to continue developing some of the methods that I was working on in Europe while expanding my research in a few exciting areas.

We’re looking to apply this technology to different types of cancer and different diseases in collaboration with clinician scientists. I’m interested in applying this technology in drug clinical trials to help us understand how patients respond to different therapies. In parallel, I look forward to using this technology to study experimental model systems to better understand how cells are communicating with each other and what goes wrong in the communication between cells during cancer development.

Our work has shown what this technology is able to do and that has only opened more avenues for future research. I’m excited because these new applications are now within our reach. To date, collaborations have allowed me to make more progress than I could have ever made on my own and I look forward to building new collaborations to make new discoveries in the future.

Visit Dr. Hartland Jackson’s OICR website page

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