April 8, 2021

OICR to contribute to new Canadian COVID-19 data portal

Genome Canada has announced the launch of a new, Canadian SARS-CoV-2 Data Portal that will manage and facilitate data sharing of viral genome sequences among Canadian public health labs, researchers and other groups interested in accessing the data for research purposes.

McGill University’s, Dr. Guillaume Bourque and his team will lead the project in collaboration with the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) and a number of world-leading genomics scientists specializing in data science, including Dr. Christina Yung, Director of Genome Informatics, OICR, and Dr. Lincoln Stein, Head, Adaptive Oncology, OICR.

The team will also collaborate with DNA Stack, a CanCOGeN industry partner led by OICR Associate Dr. Marc Fiume. The Data Portal will make use of DNA Stack’s COVID Cloud platform to develop and provide real-time analytical dashboards, data exploration and standards-compliant data interfaces.

Read the news release

April 7, 2021

OICR congratulates Dr. Elizabeth Eisenhauer on receiving the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award

Dr. Elizabeth Eisenhauer has been named the winner of the 2021 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award. The award is given to a Canadian scientist recognized for outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science throughout their career. Eisenhauer is receiving the award for her transformational research in cancer clinical trials and cancer drug delivery and the impact of her work for patients around the world.

Eisenhauer is Professor Emerita, Departments of Oncology and Medicine, Adjunct Professor of Oncology, Queen’s University and Innovation Lead, Kingston Health Sciences Centre. She is a current member of OICR’s Therapeutics Pipeline Advisory Committee, past Co-chair of OICR’s Scientific Advisory Board and was a founding member of OICR’s Board of Directors.

Eisenhauer has made fundamental contributions to the clinical evaluation of new cancer therapies, research strategy and clinical trials development that have been essential in the development of new treatments for ovarian cancer, malignant melanoma and brain tumours.

OICR congratulates Eisenhauer on this very well-deserved honour and thanks her for her past and current contributions to OICR and leadership in the cancer research community.

Read the full announcement from the Gairdner Foundation

March 30, 2021

Patient reflections from the 2021 OICR Translational Research Conference

Antonia Palmer, Chair of OICR’s Patient and Family Advisory Council, shares her thoughts from the Conference

Day 1

OICR recently established a Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC). The PFAC will be the chief patient-focused advisory body for the Institute and will have a critical role in helping it become a patient-partnered organization. PFAC members are an engaged and impressive group of patients and patient representatives from across Ontario. I have the great honour of taking the role of the first Chair of the PFAC and look forward to what our group will be able to accomplish as the group becomes established within OICR.

The first day of the OICR Translational Research Conference has been extremely interesting and illuminating. We applaud the future vision for OICR that Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, the Institute’s President and Scientific Director, described in his opening remarks – placing an important focus on the early detection of cancer and on the development of precision tailored treatments leading to the cure of different cancer types and improved monitoring.

We are seeing research that is extending across different cancer types. Research into early detection that is simultaneously effective, minimally invasive, and cost effective. The creative design of clinical trials such as the Window of Opportunity (WOO) clinical trials, also known as phase 0 clinical trials, that evaluate new treatment strategies in between the time of a patient’s cancer diagnosis and their surgery. During the sessions we were informed about research into molecular signalling and how disruptions into signalling pathways contribute to disease, how radiopharmaceuticals are used for targeted therapies and imaging – working to improve the dynamic monitoring of disease and for early detection and diagnosis, and research into methods of cell protection and how to override checkpoints to disrupt inhibition. In the keynote address from Dr. Sylvia Plevritis, we learned more about the tumour microenvironment interactome.

When patient partners involved in the Conference had a debrief earlier today, we talked about the significant importance of collaboration between researchers, research institutions, within Ontario, other provinces and across Canada. Sharing findings and information in conferences like this one is absolutely critical but we must develop more regular, accepted and seamless ways of sharing research and patient information within provinces and across the country.  Data sharing is critical for moving the science forward and an example of this was specifically highlighted in the talk earlier today on hereditary cancers and being able to share information about patients in one family who live in different locations. We must continue to work to address communication and data sharing silos to create more opportunities for data sharing. The pandemic has also been a spotlight for this important issue.

Patient partners involved in the Conference greatly appreciate the lay summaries for presentations, the ability to ask questions, and to be a part of better understanding the immense breadth of work that is being done in the world of cancer and how OICR is a part of making a difference in oncology.

To all the researchers providing formal presentations, presenting posters, asking questions, and immersing themselves in science – patient partners see you, your work, passion and dedication.  We are pleased to be able to learn from you and hope that we can create more pathways where you can learn from us.  Your work gives us hope, and for that, we thank you.

The involvement of patient partners in research provides for some rich interactions and learnings that can occur in the design, execution and communication of findings. Patient partners are different from research participants – they are people with lived experience who can bring patient focused learnings and experience as involved members of research teams.  For researchers who are a part of this Conference, how are you including patient partners in the research that you are doing? If you were to include patient partners in your research, how would you do that? If this is something that you are doing already or something that you would like to start to do, I would like to encourage you to reach out to OICR to share your experiences or begin a discussion about how the OICR PFAC can help to bring the patient partner voice to your work.

Thank you for this opportunity to be able to share some patient reflections from Day 1 of the Conference. You can also read patient reflections from Day 2 below.

Day 2

Day 2 opened with Dr. David O’Neill, President of FACIT, described the need for establishing Ontario in a position of strength in the area of oncology research and the importance of initiatives such as Ontario First commercialization. As patient partners, we absolutely agree that we need to work diligently to ensure that patients are getting early access to experimental diagnostics, imaging and treatments. Building pathways for translating health intellectual property will create a positive feedback loop – encouraging even more research and research commercialization here in Ontario to continuously grow the promising pipeline of high-quality oncology innovations. It is about a positive impact on research, health systems, and the economy.

In our Patient Partner debrief today, we talked about the breadth and quality of research presented today, and at the Conference overall. We can hear the excitement and enthusiasm as presenters talk about their research and the science. This enthusiasm is palpable and in turn excites patients.

We see great examples of collaboration that is happening provincially, nationally and internationally. Collaboration is paramount and we applaud the sharing of research and the creation of multi-disciplinary teams to push science forward and provide the right treatments to the right patients at the right time.

Patient partners are excited by what we learned today about research on:

  • The use of novel imaging technologies to investigate cancer from the single cell level to understand different disease sub-groups and possible response to treatment.
  • The production of radiolabelled molecules for imaging and therapy – pushing forward understanding of patient stratification, disease response monitoring, drug development and imaging as predictive biomarkers of disease response.
  • The better understanding of diseases like pancreatic cancer through clinical trials to improve outcomes for patients.

Exciting developments were also shared about international data sharing, ICGC-ARGO and platforms for Big Data. And also the longitudinal understanding of cancer through CanPath to support studies focused on early detection.

We also heard about the importance of including health technology assessment early in the research process, especially within the precision medicine landscape, and how we can create a learning healthcare system to generate and apply real world evidence.

During the open session on patient partnership, the discussion was wide ranging. We talked about the importance of integrating patient partners in research. Cancer forces patients to walk a tightrope and helping researchers understand that bigger picture is critical. Patient partners provide a human face to research. 

We also talked about the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion in research and patient partnership and the importance of ensuring that treatments, clinical trials, and research are representative of all Canadian communities.

We discussed how we communicate to patients about science, clinical trials, and research findings. There is an obvious importance of talking about the successes of research; however, it is important to discuss the failures that also occur. The scientific process is not only about the successes. It is critical that we do a better job of helping each other understand where research fails and how we use that knowledge to understand where to go next.

Ideal patient partnership engagement has many forms. It is about ensuring that patients are involved early in the project, that their role is defined and understood, the involvement is built on trust and respect, and that there is a platform for open two-way conversation. If you are unsure with how to integrate patient partners within your research, the most important thing that you can do is try. If you need help with integrating patient partners into your research, please reach out to OICR and the Patient and Family Advisory Council will be happy to help.

Thank you for this opportunity to be able to share some patient reflections from Day 2 of the Conference.

March 24, 2021

OICR, Intensity Therapeutics and The Ottawa Hospital to conduct Window of Opportunity clinical trial in early-stage breast cancer

Dr. Angel Arnaout and Dr. John Bartlett.

OICR, Intensity Therapeutics and The Ottawa Hospital have agreed to collaborate to conduct a Phase II randomized, window of opportunity (WOO) clinical trial evaluating an immunotherapy drug, called INT230-6 vs. the standard of care. Currently there is no treatment available to be given in the gap between the diagnosis of breast cancer and surgery, which is often four weeks long. It is believed the treatment will kill cancer cells and slow the spread of breast cancer prior to surgery.

“WOO trials form a key part of OICR’s new research strategy because they are essential in helping to identify new biomarkers and develop more precise diagnostics and treatments for patients,” said Dr. Christine Williams, Ph.D., Deputy Director, OICR. “This trial is the first in our newly-launched Window of Opportunity Network, and it shows the promise and enthusiasm for WOO trials across the research community. We are proud to be working with proven clinical and industry partners like The Ottawa Hospital and Intensity Therapeutics to determine the effectiveness of INT230-6 in helping early-stage breast cancer patients.”

OICR’s Diagnostic Development group, led by Dr. John Bartlett, will analyze subject immune responses and conduct biomarker analysis. The study’s Principal Investigator is Dr. Angel Arnaout, Professor of Surgery at the University of Ottawa and Scientist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Read the news release

March 18, 2021

OICR appoints Dr. Steven Gallinger as Head, Clinical Translation

Gallinger brings more than three decades of clinical and interdisciplinary research experience to OICR leadership

Dr. Steven Gallinger has joined OICR’s executive leadership team as Head, Clinical Translation. In this role, he will lead one of OICR’s three key priority areas, Clinical Translation, which focuses on advancing Ontario cancer discoveries through early clinical validation, partnering with industry and the health system for downstream development and implementation.

Gallinger has more than three decades of experience as a surgical oncologist specializing in hepato-pancreatico-biliary surgeries. He is internationally recognized for establishing one of the largest population-based colon cancer registries, and he is well-known for his pancreatic cancer research, through which he has made significant contributions to large-scale genomics studies like the International Cancer Genome Consortium. Gallinger is passionate about building large biospecimens and data repositories to enable research discoveries.

In conjunction with Gallinger’s appointment, OICR is also proud to announce Dr. Glenn Bauman will continue as a Clinical Lead for Clinical Translation. Bauman, who has led several OICR research initiatives and clinical trials over the last 10 years, is a Radiation Oncologist at the London Health Sciences Centre who focuses on genitourinary and central nervous system tumours.

“The entire OICR executive is thrilled to have Dr. Gallinger join our leadership team,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director, OICR. “Steven’s deep experience as both a clinician and researcher will help OICR strengthen our bridge between the lab and the clinic. The continued contributions of Dr. Bauman will further accelerate our efforts to get novel solutions to patients in Ontario and around the world.”

“Translating research findings to improve clinical care is complex,” says Dr. Christine Williams, Deputy Director, OICR. “Success depends on the engagement of many partners, including the health system, health regulators and in some cases the private sector, as well as scientists, clinicians and especially patients and their families. Drs. Gallinger and Bauman are leaders in forging these partnerships and translating research into practice. We’re proud to welcome Dr. Gallinger to OICR’s executive team and delighted that OICR will continue to benefit from Dr. Bauman’s scientific leadership.”

Among his many career accomplishments, Gallinger and the multidisciplinary team at Princess Margaret has been the driving force behind the COMPASS clinical trial, which has led to seminal discoveries that are paving the way for new personalized pancreatic cancer therapies. As Head of Clinical Translation, Gallinger will continue co-leading the pancreatic cancer PanCuRx Translational Research Initiative and build upon PanCuRx’s translational achievements.

“This is an exciting time at OICR,” says Gallinger. “We’re looking to build on our existing networks and research successes. As we embark upon our new Strategic Plan, I think we can reach out and support research across more cancer centres so that we can work together to benefit patients sooner, while keeping Ontario at the forefront of precision cancer medicine.”

As part of her Deputy Director role, Williams will continue to oversee the Clinical Translation networks of the Clinical Translation portfolio, including the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Network, the Ontario Cancer Research Ethics Board and the Ontario Health Study.

March 9, 2021

OICR-affiliated researchers awarded $6.6 million in funding from CIHR

From top-left: Drs. Courtney Jones, Faiyaz Notta, Rima Al-Awar, Trevor Pugh, Naoto Hirano, Hartland Jackson and Kieran Campbell.

The funding will support projects ranging from drug discovery to cancer stem cells

Seven OICR-affiliated researchers have been awarded $6.6 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) through its Project Grants program, which is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential to advance health and research. The funded projects will help support key OICR research in drug discovery, pancreatic cancer, immunotherapy, genomics and circulating tumour DNA, and cancer stem cells.

Dr. Rima Al-Awar
Head, Therapeutic Innovation and Drug Discovery, OICR
The Discovery and Optimization of NUAK Inhibitors: A Novel Approach to Target Hippo Pathway Driven Cancers

Dr. Kieran Campbell
OICR Affiliate, Scientist & Principal Investigator, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital
Characterizing immune evasion in pancreatic adenocarcinoma: an integrative computational and experimental approach to understanding aberrant antigen presentation

Dr. Naoto Hirano
OICR Clinician Scientist, Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
Development of TCR-engineered T cells against novel NY-ESO-1 epitopes for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer

Dr. Hartland Jackson
OICR Investigator, Investigator, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health
Targeting chemotherapy resistant multi-cellular environments in pancreatic cancer

Dr. Courtney Jones
OICR Investigator, Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
Characterization and Targeting of SIRT3 in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Stem Cells

Dr. Faiyaz Notta
OICR Associate, Co-Lead, OICR PanCuRx Translational Research Initiative, Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
Impact of copy number imbalances in mutant KRAS on pancreatic cancer chemoresistance and metastases

Dr. Trevor Pugh
Senior Investigator and Director, Genomics, OICR
Understanding inevitable relapse of multiple myeloma following highly-effective anti-BCMA treatment

March 9, 2021

OICR research team awarded $2.4 million to facilitate precision medicine for early-stage breast cancer

Partnership between Thermo-Fisher Scientific and OICR Diagnostic Development, led by Dr. John Bartlett, awarded support from Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, has announced $8.6 million in federal support through Ontario Genomics via Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) to five applied genomics research projects that will improve the well-being of Canadians. As one of the five recipients, OICR’s Diagnostic Development program will receive $2.4 million to develop an epigenomic profiling tool to better understand the progression of breast cancer.

Working with Thermo Fisher Scientific, OICR’s Drs. John Bartlett, Jane Bayani, Melanie Spears and collaborators will investigate the effects of differences in ethnicity on breast cancer treatment and survivorship. Their ultimate goal is to make the delivery of targeted breast cancer treatment more equitable for Black and Asian women.

From left to right: Melanie Spears, John Bartlett, Dan Dion, Jeff Smith, Elaine Wong-Ho, Seth Sadis and Jane Bayani.

“Moving forward we want to understand how the complex relationship between biology and ethnicity can accelerate the delivery of the best treatments to patients, treating everyone as an individual based on the biology of their disease,” says Dr. John Bartlett, Director, Diagnostic Development, OICR.

Breast cancer, which was once considered a homogeneous disease, is now understood to be a variety of different types of cancer that require different types of treatment. Understanding the DNA changes that lead to breast cancer and the downstream effects of DNA changes on the cellular machinery – such as the epigenomics of the disease – helps us match the best treatment for each patient. Through this project, Bartlett, Bayani, Spears and collaborators will develop and validate new and improved tests to subtype and predict the severity of breast cancers. They will focus on comparing results between cancers in Black and Asian minority ethnic groups and other ethnic groups.

“We’re thrilled to continue working with Thermo Fisher to examine the role of ethnicity and develop new tools in the diagnosis of breast cancer,” says Dr. Melanie Spears, Principal Research Scientist, Diagnostic Development.

Genome Canada’s GAPP funds translational research and development projects that address real-world challenges and opportunities identified by industry, government, not-for-profits, and other receptors of genomics knowledge and technology. These targeted investments support outcome-oriented partnerships across sectors to generate Canadian-led solutions.

“This grant will give us the opportunity to bring additional precision medicine tests for breast cancer patients and examine the impact ethnicity has in the biology of these cancers,” says Bayani, co-lead investigator and Principal Research Scientist at OICR. “We’re excited to work with our industry partner and collaborators in moving personalize medicine forward,” says Dr. Jane Bayani, Principal Research Scientist, Diagnostic Development.

“Investing in genomics research with a line of sight to application is critical for the health and well-being of Canadians,” said Dr. Rob Annan, President and CEO of Genome Canada.  “Genome Canada is proud to work with the Government of Canada to fuel demand-driven genomics research and innovation collaborations among academic, industry, health-care and other partners to shape a better, healthier future for Canadians.”

Learn more about this project: Development of an Epigenomic Profiling Tool to Facilitate Precision Medicine in Early Breast Cancer.

March 4, 2021

New national research platform to accelerate the development of new cell therapies for cancer

The Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG), based in Kingston, Ont., will lead a new initiative called ExCELLirate Canada that will develop and optimize distributed point-of-care manufacturing that will improve efficiency, quality, and capacity to test innovative “made in Canada” cell therapies. Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, today announced $5.1 million in funding through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to launch the platform.

ExCELLirate Canada will help researchers bring new therapies to market and ultimately provide better outcomes for Canadians with cancer. Many patients do not survive the month required to produce CAR T- cells using the current system. Through ExCELLirate Canada, Canadians will have rapid access to innovative cell therapies. OICR is a partner in the initiative along with other leading research organizations across Ontario and Canada.

“ExCELLirate will allow Canada to shift our efforts in cell therapy into high gear and be at the forefront of this game-changing technology while providing patients more access to this cutting-edge therapy,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR. “I congratulate our friends at CCTG and the ExCELLirate team on the funding announced today. We at OICR are so proud to be part of this important work.”

Read the announcement from the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Group

March 1, 2021

Research breakthrough paves way for more cancer patients to benefit from immunotherapy, regardless of ancestry

Dr. Naoto Hirano

OICR Investigator, Dr. Naoto Hirano, expands arsenal of immunotherapy technologies, opening new frontiers in immunotherapy for cancer patients and beyond

Adoptive cell therapy is a promising cancer treatment that uses our immune system to eliminate cancer cells. These treatments, however, are only effective for a small subset of individuals with specific types of cancer and specific inherited genes. Dr. Naoto Hirano’s recent breakthrough paves the way for novel immunotherapies to help more patients, regardless of their genetic ancestry, live longer and healthier lives.

In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, Hirano and his collaborators developed a new technology that rigorously and robustly identifies the immune cells that are capable of recognizing and eliminating cancer cells. This technology allows researchers to develop new immunotherapies for cancer patients that are not limited by the differences – or heterogeneity – of tumour cells, thus expanding the potential impact of immunotherapy for patients around the world.

Hirano’s technology applies to an immunotherapy approach called T cell receptor (TCR) gene therapy that is based on genetically-engineered immune cells (T cells) recognizing and binding to specific molecules, called peptide-loaded human leukocyte antigens (HLA), on the surface of cancer cells. Although there has been progress in TCR therapy, there are more than 28,000 different variations of HLA found in humans and current TCR therapies only work for a few of these variations.

“Historically, TCR treatments have been developed for those who had the most common and well-studied HLA alleles, which often meant that these immunotherapies only worked for people from Caucasian ancestry,” says Hirano, who is a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and OICR Clinician Scientist. “It was an important goal for us to develop a technology that could work for a broad range of HLA alleles. We’re proud of what we developed because it could help many more cancer patients in the future.”

The technology presented in this study involves a methodology that can – in a single step at a low expense – form a functional protein structure, called a dimer, that is comprised of any peptide and HLA molecule, regardless of type, and can bind to and identify a variety of T cells. The method improves the binding affinity between T cells and HLA molecules nearly 200-fold relative to prior methods, which could allow researchers to better identify and engineer the T cells for novel immunotherapies.

The technology has been licensed to TCRyption Inc. for further development, translation, and large-scale implementation. In the future, it may be applied to fields other than cancer research and care, including autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

“I’m grateful for the cancer research community’s support over the years, which has enabled me to focus on important and challenging issues,” says Hirano, who was named the University Health Network’s Inventor of the Year last year for developing these analysis techniques. “Only with the support for rigorous experimentation, deep expertise, and innovative thinking, were we able to make this breakthrough.”

Learn more about the work behind this publication, or read more about Dr. Hirano.


Note: N.H. has received research funding from Takara Bio and served as a consultant for Takara. The University Health Network has filed a patent application related to this study on which N.H. is named as a lead inventor. N.H. is cofounder and has equity in TCRyption to which the technologies used in this study have been licensed.

February 26, 2021

Drug combination results in longer survival for patients with recurrent and advanced ovarian cancer

Dr. Stephanie Lheureux and Dr. Amit Oza
Dr. Stephanie Lheureux | Dr. Amit Oza

An OICR-supported research team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre has shown that adding a targeted drug to chemotherapy results in longer survival and a stronger response to treatment in a difficult-to-treat form of ovarian cancer.

When a patient’s ovarian cancer becomes resistant to treatment, the patient has few alternative options and faces an estimated survival of less than 18 months. This is a reality for approximately one in four women with the disease.

Against this challenge, a team OICR-supported through OICR’s Ovarian Cancer Translational Research Initiative (TRI), headed by Dr. Stephanie Lheureux, Princess Margaret (PM) Clinician Investigator and Dr. Amit Oza, PM Senior Scientist and OICR TRI leader, led a Phase II clinical trial including nearly 100 women across 11 centres to evaluate the combination therapy of adavosterib and gemcitabine. Their discoveries, which were recently published in The Lancet, demonstrated that this combination increased survival by 4.3 months relative to chemotherapy and placebo alone. 23 per cent of patients’ cancers responded to the chemotherapy, in contrast to a 6 per cent response rate seen using chemotherapy alone.

“By combing two drugs, we were able to change the trajectory of cancer for a high-risk group of women with advanced disease who did not have many choices left,” says Oza, Medical Director of the Cancer Clinical Research Unit and Co-Director of the Bras Drug Development Program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “That is significant.”

Lead author Dr. Stephanie Lheureux says that the study provides a signal of hope for women with ovarian cancer who develop drug-resistance to treatment. The study included some women who had received up to eight different previous treatments which had stopped working.

“As we learn more and more about the biology of tumours, we can target treatments more precisely to the molecular changes in a cancer to improve the type and response of our treatments. That will change outcomes for patients,” says Lheureux, who is also the Princess Margaret Site Lead for Gynecological Oncology. “I want our patients to know there is hope to find better treatment to control their cancer.”

By combing two drugs, we were able to change the trajectory of cancer for a high-risk group of women with advanced disease who did not have many choices left

Dr. Amit Oza

The study participants had high-grade serous ovarian cancer – the most malignant form of ovarian cancer, accounting for up to 70 per cent of all ovarian cancer cases. They were randomly assigned to receive either adavosertib plus gemcitabine (chemotherapy) or placebo plus gemcitabine.

The patients’ tumours were biopsied before and during treatment to assess the effectiveness of the drug regimens. Analysis of genetic mutations and changes in DNA damage response pathways was performed by the Joint Genomics Program at OICR and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

“This discovery underscores the importance of bringing scientists and clinicians together to tackle difficult questions from different perspectives to offer new insights into the biology of cancer,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director, Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. “It shows how we can push these damaged cancer cells right smack into mitotic catastrophe to their demise. This clinical trial has validated good science that has begun to uncover how a cancer cell’s own DNA repair mechanism can be used against it and capitalizes on this unique vulnerability by combining drugs in a smart way. The small-molecule DNA repair inhibitors used in this study targeting the G2-M checkpoint hold great promise as chemotherapy enhancers by further damaging and ultimately destroying tumour cells, thereby overcoming treatment-resistant ovarian cancer.”

In addition to improving overall survival by 4.3 months, the combination of adavosertib and gemcitabine improved progression-free survival by 1.6 months relative to chemotherapy alone.

“Taken together, these three outcomes give us a strong signal that we can potentially improve survival for these patients who face bleak prospects,” says Dr. Oza, adding that the study carefully co-ordinated patients with similar genomic backgrounds with a targeted drug that exploits a defect in cancer cells.

“This is precision medicine at its best,” he adds. “This is how we will develop better treatments for our patients.”

Through whole-exome sequencing, the study found that patients’ tumours acquire several changes – or mutations – that play an important role in regulating critical cell cycle checkpoints. These mutations could disable these “quality control” checks, allowing cancer cells with damaged DNA to continue dividing and growing unimpeded.

Further, they discovered that the drug adavosertib could effectively target tumour cells that harbour the key TP53 mutation.

“We exploited a fatal flaw in cell division, diverting and stopping the damaged cells from growing into a tumour,” explains Lheureux. “We showed the potential of targeting the cell cycle in a specific subgroup of patients with highly resistant ovarian cancer. This opens up new avenues of treatment possibilities.”

The research group now plans to evaluate the impact of this combination on patients’ quality of life and analyze patients’ blood samples to search for blood-based indicators of treatment resistance.


In addition to OICR’s support, the study was also funded by the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, the U.S. National Cancer Institute Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program, the U.S. Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program, and AstraZeneca.

February 26, 2021

Bringing AI-enabled cancer support to life

Text-based online support groups augmented with a new tool for detecting distress

Therapist-led online support groups can provide a safe space for people affected by cancer to discuss fear, normalize stress, build resilience and enhance coping. Cancer Chat Canada offers real time text-based support groups, but therapists who lead these groups often feel challenged to address the needs of each participant in the absence of visual cues. Recent Ontario-made advances in artificial intelligence (AI) may offer potential solutions.

In a paper recently published in JMIR Research Protocols, an Ontario-based research group outlines their new AI-enabled virtual therapy cofacilitator tool for online cancer support groups. The tool uses a machine learning algorithm based on interpreting patterns of speech and language to track support group participants’ progress in real-time, while providing feedback to the leading therapist.

The research initiative was supported by OICR through the OICR-Cancer Care Ontario (Ontario Health) Health Services Research Network, and led by Drs. Yvonne Leung and Mary Jane Esplen, experts in the psychological impact of cancer.

Workflow of how the chatbot works.

“Online support groups are accessible and effective at reducing cancer-related emotional distress, but it can be challenging to monitor individual participant distress and engagement while responding to multiple participants’ messages simultaneously,” says project lead Esplen, Professor and Vice-Chair, Equity and Mentorship in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto and former Lead of the de Souza Institute. “With multiple participants typing at the same time, nuances of text messages and red flags for distress can sometimes be missed. Our tool serves as an AI-enabled cofacilitator that can enhance the therapist’s ability to address these concerns.”

With a tool that can detect and flag issues, therapists could prioritize concerns more effectively, provide more individualized support in real time, and direct treatment accordingly in a timely manner.

In 2020, the research group completed the first phase of their study, during which they developed the AI-enabled cofacilitator tool. Now, in the second phase, they are evaluating the tool’s effectiveness by scoring its ability to accurately output psychometric measures, such as fear, sadness and hopelessness.

“The goal is to visualize emotions and sentiments throughout therapy to make online group therapy more effective,” says first author Leung, who is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. “We believe these tools and technologies can be used to strengthen person-centred care by attending to individual needs and expanding access to high-quality virtual health care. We’re delighted to be in the process of validating such a cutting-edge tool.”

Should effectiveness be demonstrated in their clinical studies, the group plans to integrate their AI-enabled cofacilitator into Cancer Chat Canada’s online psychosocial oncology services, and potentially adapt the cofacilitator algorithm for other cancer-related support services.

“We’re proud of the progress made so far,” says Esplen. “Our team was strategically built to incorporate different areas of expertise and different perspectives. We’ve tested each step along the way, and we look forward to building more tools to enhance patient therapy and care.”

Read more about the OICR-CCO Health Services Research Network on OICR News.

February 23, 2021

Premier Doug Ford visits OICR

Doug Ford and Trevor Pugh

On February 23, Ontario Premier Doug Ford visited MaRS and included a stop at OICR to learn about how the Institute is using its expertise in genomics and other areas to contribute to COVID-19 research. Premier Ford was accompanied by MPPs Donna Skelly and Nina Tangri, who are Parliamentary Assistants to the Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Vic Fedeli.

During the visit Premier Ford met with members of OICR and FACIT leadership and was then given a demonstration of some of OICR’s COVID-19 research by Dr. Trevor Pugh, Director of the OICR-Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Joint Genomics Program.



Premier Ford also spoke to reporters during his visit and conveyed his thanks and support for OICR’s research into both cancer and COVID-19. “These are the areas that Ontario wants to invest in to lead the world in research, not only in COVID but in cancer and other diseases…We are very grateful for all the folks here.”

Read more about OICR contributions to COVID-19 research.





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