March 4, 2021
The Canadian Cancer Clinical 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.”
March 1, 2021
Research breakthrough paves way for more cancer patients to benefit from immunotherapy, regardless of ancestry
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.”
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
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 leftDr. 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
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.
“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.”
February 23, 2021
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.”
This morning, I joined two of our all-star MPPs @ninatangri & @SkellyHamilton to check out the innovative work being done by @OICR_news at @MaRSDD.— Doug Ford (@fordnation) February 23, 2021
We’re working hard to ensure Ontario continues to have one of the largest #LifeSciences sectors anywhere in the world. #OntarioMade pic.twitter.com/DRGHqqzcpR
Excellent work being done by this sector. Very innovative and providing great solutions https://t.co/495GMU7S3Z— Nina Tangri (@ninatangri) February 23, 2021
February 19, 2021
Inhibiting a key enzyme could help stop the growth of glioblastoma
Fewer than 10 per cent of people diagnosed with glioblastoma will survive beyond five years. Despite advances in understanding this deadly brain cancer, therapy options for this disease are severely limited. In a study recently published in Nature Communications, researchers have discovered that inhibiting a key enzyme, PRMT5, can suppress the growth of glioblastoma cells. Their findings demonstrate a novel approach to treating the disease, paving the way for a new class of therapeutics.
A multidisciplinary team with expertise in cancer stem cells, protein structures, small molecule development and multi-omic analyses enabled this discovery. The group, was co-led by Dr. Peter Dirks, Senior Scientist and Neurosurgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and co-leader of OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative along with researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) and the University of Toronto. Many of the researchers involved in the study are also part of the Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) Canada Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team, which receives support from OICR.
Through the study, they showed that inhibiting PRMT5 affected a large network of proteins that are important in cell division and growth, triggering cell senescence, and stopping the unrelenting division of cancer cells.
While PRMT5 inhibition has been previously suggested as a way to target brain and other cancers, no one has tested this strategy in a large cohort of patient tumour-derived cells that have stem cell characteristics, cells that are at the roots of glioblastoma growth.
They found that specific molecules – precursors to actual therapeutic drugs – inhibited the same enzyme, PRMT5, stopping the growth of a large portion of these patient-derived cancer stem cells. Many current drugs do not eliminate cancer stem cells, which may be why many cancers regrow after treatment.
“We used a different strategy to stop cancer cells from proliferating and seeding new tumours,” says co-senior author, Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith, Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre who leads the University of Toronto site of the SGC. “By inhibiting one protein, PRMT5, we were able to affect a cascade of proteins involved in cell division and growth. The traditional way of stopping cell division has been to block one protein. This gives us a new premise for future development of novel, more precise therapies.”
“This strategy also has the opportunity to overcome the genetic variability seen in these tumours,” says co-senior author, Dirks, who also leads the SU2C Canada Dream Team. “By targeting processes involved in every patient tumour, which are also essential for the tumour stem cell survival, we side-step the challenges of individual patient tumour variability to finding potentially more broadly applicable therapies.”
The researchers also examined the molecular features of the patient-derived glioblastoma cells by comparing those that responded well to those that did not respond as well. They found a different molecular signature for the tumour cells that responded. In the future, this could lead to specific tumour biomarkers, which could help in identifying those patients who will respond best to this new class of drugs.
The research group will continue testing PRMT5 inhibitors to develop new therapies for people with glioblastoma.
“Right now, we have too few medicines to choose from to make precision medicine a reality for many patients,” says Arrowsmith. “We need basic research to better understand the mechanism of action of drugs, particularly in the context of patient samples. This is what will help us develop the right drugs to give to the right patients to treat their specific tumours.”
The research group also included OICR-affiliated scientists and staff researchers, Drs. Trevor Pugh, Mathieu Lupien, Benjamin Haibe-Kains, and Ahmed Aman.
Adapted from a SickKids news release.
February 17, 2021
The Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO), one of the most prestigious journals in cancer research, recently added Dr. John Bartlett to its list of most-cited authors following an analysis by the analytics firm Clarivate. A clinical practice guideline update by Bartlett and his coauthors was the third most-cited article JCO published in 2018. The guideline, on HER2 testing in breast cancer, has been cited an outstanding 276 times. Bartlett is Director of OICR’s Diagnostic Development Program, which is working to develop new tools to guide precision medicine for cancer.
February 4, 2021
Multidisciplinary research group demonstrates that using MRI and targeted biopsies can avoid unnecessary prostate biopsies in a third of men and reduce the diagnosis of insignificant cancers
Determining whether a patient with prostate cancer requires aggressive therapy or active surveillance is a challenge. Current tests can detect early signs of prostate cancer, but these tests can lead to many unnecessary and painful biopsies for patients whose disease never becomes aggressive.
In an OICR-funded Phase III clinical trial, researchers have found that using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and MRI-guided biopsies as needed, can reduce the number of unnecessary prostate biopsies and the diagnosis of insignificant cancers. The study results were recently published in JAMA Oncology.
The study, called the Prostate Evaluation for Clinically Important Disease: MRI vs Standard Evaluation Procedures (PRECISE), included 453 participants at cancer centres across Canada who were assigned to either the current standard of care – a systematic transrectal ultrasound-guided (TRUS) biopsy – or a new method – MRI with MRI-guided biopsy as needed.
The study demonstrated that using MRI and MRI-targeted biopsies caught clinically significant cancers as effectively as conventional TRUS biopsies, but reduced the rate of men undergoing biopsy by almost 40 per cent. The MRI method also halved the number of unnecessary diagnoses of slow growing, clinically insignificant cancers. Additionally, those who did have biopsies in the MRI arm had significantly fewer samples taken relative to those in the TRUS biopsy arm, meaning fewer needles and less pain and discomfort for patients.
These clinical data show the revolutionary impact of the use of prostate MRI in cancer diagnosis and surveillance.
“Approximately one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime,” says the study’s lead statistician and OICR Investigator, Dr. Greg Pond, who is also an Associate Professor at McMaster University and Senior Biostatistician at the Ontario Clinical Oncology Group. “These clinical data show the revolutionary impact of the use of prostate MRI in cancer diagnosis and surveillance.”
“Using our current standard methods, we recognize that we are overdiagnosing some prostate cancers, leading to unnecessary biopsies and treatments,” says co-lead of the study, Dr. Masoom Haider, Head of the Radiomics and Machine Learning Research Lab at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Professor at the University of Toronto, and OICR Clinician Scientist. “Through PRECISE, we’ve demonstrated that using MRI and MRI-targeted biopsies as an alternative to standard biopsies, can effectively detect clinically significant cancers, but avoid overdiagnosing clinically insignificant cancers. This means reducing the number of needles or eliminating biopsy altogether if a patient doesn’t need it. For our health system, this alternative may present an opportunity to use our resources more effectively.”
Haider has played a leading role in integrating the PRECISE findings into Cancer Care Ontario (CCO) guidelines for prostate cancer management. The study’s findings influenced CCO’s Prostate MRI Guideline 27-2 and will be implemented this year, meaning more prostate cancer patients across Ontario may be spared unnecessary biopsies and treatment thanks to MRI and MRI-targeted biopsies.
February 4, 2021
Phase III clinical trial of men with a clinical suspicion of prostate cancer finds MRI with targeted biopsies to be more accurate at diagnosis and less intrusive than current standard
Toronto – (February 4, 2021) The results of a Phase III randomized clinical trial have shown that when it comes to detecting clinically significant prostate cancer, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) with targeted biopsies (MRI-TBx) matches the current standard and brings a multitude of advantages. The PRostate Evaluation for Clinically Important Disease: MRI vs Standard Evaluation Procedures (PRECISE)study will help to make prostate cancer diagnosis more accurate and less invasive.
PRECISE included 453 participants at Canadian academic cancer centres who were either assigned to receive MRI imaging followed by MRI-TBx of suspicious areas (identified by MRI), or the current standard of care of a systematic 12-core transrectal ultrasound-guided (TRUS) biopsy (TRUS-Bx).
- MRI with targeted biopsy found five per cent more clinically significant prostate cancers compared to those receiving systematic TRUS-Bx biopsies, conclusively demonstrating the method can at least match the performance of the current standard of care.
- Compared to standard TRUS-Bx, the MRI-TBx were found to be better in identifying clinically significant cancers.
- More than a third of patients in the MRI arm of the trial avoided biopsies altogether following negative imaging results. Those individuals received a follow-up MRI in two years’ time.
- Those who did have biopsies in the MRI arm had significantly fewer samples taken when compared to systematic TRUS-Bx, resulting in less pain and discomfort for patients. Moreover, the MRI arm had a decreased adverse event profile, including less hematuria (blood in the urine) and incontinence.
- There is a major unmet need for a test that identifies clinically significant prostate cancer while avoiding overdiagnosing clinically insignificant cancers. Use of MRI reduced the unnecessary diagnosis of slow growing, clinically insignificant prostate cancers by 55 per cent.
These findings show decisively that MRI together with targeted biopsies offer patients a less invasive procedure, the chance to avoid a biopsy all together and can help avoid the over-treatment of clinically insignificant prostate cancer – all while detecting a higher rate of clinically significant cancers.
“My colleagues and I are thrilled about these results that show, without a doubt, that imaging and targeted biopsies are the future of prostate cancer diagnosis. We can catch more of the cancers we should be treating, avoid unnecessary treatment at the same time and improve the quality of life for our patients.” says Dr. Laurence Klotz, Chair of Prostate Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and lead author of the study. “We thank the study participants and our funders for their support and look forward to continuing our efforts to have this technology used more widely.”
“The study’s findings have influenced Ontario Health-Cancer Care Ontario’s upcoming, updated Prostate MRI Guidelines, which will be released this year,” says Dr. Masoom Haider, co-lead of the study and Professor of Medical Imaging at the University of Toronto, and Clinician Scientist with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). “I am pleased to see our research produce results that will make a real difference in how prostate cancer is diagnosed and improve the lives of patients.”
“I congratulate Dr. Klotz and the PRECISE team on this truly impactful research which will change clinical care and make a difference for men with prostate cancer,” says Dr. Christine Williams, Deputy Director and Head, Clinical Translation, OICR. “It is a great example of how, with our partners, we are moving research innovations to the clinic to improve the lives of patients and treat cancer with improved precision.”
“These practice-changing results will have a significant and positive impact on the roughly 64 Canadians who are diagnosed with prostate cancer every day. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Klotz and his team, people will need to undergo fewer biopsies and for some of them, they will be spared from unnecessary biopsies and treatments altogether,” says Dr. Stuart Edmonds, Executive Vice President, Mission, Research and Advocacy at the Canadian Cancer Society. “We are proud to support this research, which will help people with prostate cancer live longer, fuller lives.”
“At Movember, we are honoured to play a role in funding cutting-edge research like the PRECISE study, ultimately helping to provide more positive outcomes for men living with or beyond a prostate cancer diagnosis,” says Todd Minerson, Country Director for Movember Canada.
PRECISE was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society with funds provided by Movember and by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
About the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research
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 http://www.oicr.on.ca.
About the Canadian Cancer Society
The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is the only national charity that supports Canadians with all cancers in communities across the country. No other organization does what we do; we are the voice for Canadians who care about cancer. We fund groundbreaking research, provide a support system for all those affected by cancer and shape health policies to prevent cancer and support those living with the disease.
Help us make a difference. Call 1-888-939-3333 or visit cancer.ca today.
Movember is the leading charity changing the face of men’s health on a global scale, focusing on mental health and suicide prevention, prostate cancer and testicular cancer. The charity raises funds to deliver innovative, breakthrough research and support programs that enable men to live happier, healthier and longer lives. Committed to disrupting the status quo, millions have joined the movement, helping fund over 1,250 projects around the world. In addition to tackling key health issues faced by men, Movember is working to encourage men to stay healthy in all areas of their life, with a focus on men staying socially connected, and becoming more open to discussing their health and significant moments in their lives. The charity’s vision is to have an everlasting impact on the face of men’s health. To donate or learn more, please visit Movember.com.
February 3, 2021
OICR Genomics believes high-quality cancer research starts with high-quality data. Since inception, their labs have been committed to quality, and now accreditation is within reach
Standards are all around us – making our lives safer and easier in many ways. In both research and medicine, laboratory standards help evaluate a lab’s quality, reliability and efficiency. Research lab standards help scientists generate reliable data leading to reproducible discoveries, but in medicine, lab standards help clinicians make more accurate diagnoses and treatment decisions. These different applications call for different standards and sometimes different schools of thought.
Since inception, OICR Genomics has been building a bridge between research and medicine, developing new standards for innovative genomics technologies while refining lab procedures so they can serve as the trusted genomics services provider for Ontario’s cancer community. Today, OICR Genomics is proud to provide high-quality services for cancer researchers, clinicians, and the patients they serve.
The journey to accreditation
Achieving and maintaining accreditation is an exceptionally rigorous process that requires steadfast diligence and meticulous lab management over a sustained period of time. Since 2018, OICR Genomics has been developing and improving processes and procedures to achieve accreditation by the Institute for Quality Management in Healthcare (IQMH) and the College of American Pathologists (CAP), two well-recognized leaders in lab accreditation.
There are three key elements that make accreditation possible:
Dedicated people. Every member of OICR Genomics is important to the accreditation process. Accreditation requirements include effective documentation and training protocols, a strong track record of good lab practices, continuous sharing and monitoring of technical results, appropriate validation and uncertainty correction methods, an extensive array of standard operating procedures, and more. Successful accreditation requires the collective effort of all lab staff – from students to senior researchers.
“I’m proud of our team’s commitment to the community,” says Dr. Carolyn Ptak, Program Manager and Quality Assurance Lead of OICR Genomics. “We have a great group that is flexible, innovative and committed to quality.
Balanced priorities. Given the complex and rapidly evolving field of cancer genomics, many laboratories face challenges associated with compliance. New tools and innovations call for new standards. OICR Genomics continuously strives to balance innovation, performance, efficiency and safety under the leadership of Dr. Trevor Pugh.
“As research continues to evolve, OICR Genomics will continue to as well,” says Dr. Trevor Pugh, Senior Investigator and Director of the Joint Genomics Program at OICR and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “We’re excited by the current advancements in genomics and we look forward to continuous improvement in the years to come.”
Stable support. Over the last fifteen years, OICR has mobilized the community to transform cancer care through collaborative networks, transformative initiatives and more. Many collaborators have recognized the value of working with OICR Genomics and it is with their consistent support that the foundations leading to accreditation were laid.
“We are thankful for all the talented scientists who have worked with us throughout the years on innumerable genomic sequencing projects,” says Dr. Paul Krzyzanowski, Director of the Genome Research Platform, “Our newly accredited services will be available to clinical, academic, and industrial research clients and we’re excited to be able to support a whole new scale and scope of projects.
For the community
Genomics has become a central discipline of cancer research. It has unlocked new opportunities to predict cancer earlier and match patients with the most effective medicines for their disease. In parallel, advances in research methods and sequencing technologies have expanded the affordability and accessibility of genetic sequencing. Reading human DNA and RNA is no longer a multi-year, multi-million-dollar initiative, it can be done in hours or days at a fraction of that cost. These opportunities, however, can only be realized through the translation of research and innovation. For OICR Genomics, translation is at the centre of their mission – and rigorous lab standards help accelerate translation.
Within the cancer community, OICR Genomics’ lab standards can mean different things to different people:
- For the researcher, high lab standards and accredited lab services help you generate high-quality, reliable data in an efficient way. This means you can have more trust in your results and more reproducible discoveries.
- For the patient, high lab standards can help ensure that the community is effectively gaining knowledge from your donated biological samples. Accreditation of your local genomics research lab can also help your care teams apply the most recent discoveries to your treatment planning.
- For the province, these internationally recognized standards will help research teams use resources efficiently and effectively, maximizing the impact of finite resources, while attracting high-profile genomic studies to Ontario.
“Accreditation allows us to explore transformative new approaches to achieve health benefits,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR. “Ultimately, accredited lab protocols help our lab infrastructure serve as bridge between research and improved health.”
February 3, 2021
How OICR is using strategic foresight to prepare for the future and inform its 2021-2026 Strategic Plan
OICR focuses on translating cancer research discoveries and transforming cancer care. Achieving this mission, however, is dependent on a myriad of factors beyond scientific research and development. Social, political, technological, economic and environmental factors all may play a role in driving the future of cancer research and care in Ontario and beyond.
As part of the process to develop its 2021-2026 Strategic Plan, OICR partnered with Dr. Peter Bishop, Professor Emeritus at the University of Houston, professional futurist and President of Strategic Foresight and Development, to investigate the possible futures of cancer research and care in Ontario and around the world. OICR plans to launch the 2021-2026 Strategic Plan in April 2021.
With the help of leaders from research institutes, hospitals and the public sector across Ontario, 20 key drivers were identified that may significantly affect the future of cancer, including an aging population, innovations in quantum computing and the growing focus on holistic health. The group then designed and evaluated potential future scenarios and derived four main insights that were used to inform OICR’s 2021-2026 Strategic Plan:
While health-related datasets continue to grow and new sources of data emerge, standards around data gathering, monitoring, integration, sharing and implementation remain unclear. These parameters affect how the cancer community implements precision medicine for people living with cancer. Through its 2021-2026 Strategic Plan, OICR’s computational biology and informatics research programs will continue to develop essential data tools and apply responsible data sharing standards, while strengthening Ontario’s global leadership in health data integration and federation through initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, the International Cancer Genomics Consortium Accelerating Research in Genomic Oncology, Canada’s Digital Health and Discovery Platform, and the Ontario Data Integration Network.
Integrating the perspectives of patients into research is becoming increasingly important to ensure that research ultimately leads to patient benefit. Over the next few decades, patients will increasingly have access to more information and misinformation, challenging the research and health communities to ensure patients receive the information they need to make informed decisions. To address these challenges, OICR will foster and grow meaningful partnerships with patients and caregivers to integrate patient values into OICR priorities. OICR is currently developing a Patient Family Advisory Council, which will advise on OICR’s patient partnership initiatives.
As the cost and urgency of cancer drug development continue to increase, alternative funding for research and translation may become necessary. This challenge has become more apparent as the world looks to recover from the socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. OICR will continue to strengthen partnerships within the cancer ecosystem over the next five years, to attract further investment in cancer research and innovation to Ontario. OICR will also build health services research expertise into critical research programs to evaluate the costs and benefits of emerging interventions to support the path between discovery and patient care.
Trust between stakeholders in the cancer system – including patients, families, researchers and clinicians – is critical to progress in cancer research. Trust is imperative to data gathering, sharing and processing, and these data are necessary to make cancer detection and treatment more precise. Through the 2021-2026 Strategic Plan, OICR aims to work together with partners to ensure we remain and become an even more trusted custodian of patient data and scientific information to support high quality translational research, bridging the lab to the clinic.
“Our mission is based on translating cancer research discoveries to transform cancer care,” says Dr. Rebecca Tamarchak, Senior Director of Strategic Planning and Governance. “Integrating foresight into our strategic planning process is our way to proactively anticipate the future in order to develop a nimbler strategy.”
The strategic foresight workshop, which was hosted in late 2018, kicked off OICR’s multi-phase strategic planning process. The process, led by Tamarchak and OICR’s President and Scientific Director, Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, has incorporated insights from extensive consultations with OICR staff, collaborators and the community.
“This strategic foresight study has reinforced the importance of enduring partnerships across the cancer research community and we look forward to strengthening those relationships over the next five years to maximize our impact on cancer patients and the Ontario economy,” says Tamarchak. “We’re excited to bring the 2021-2026 Strategic Plan into action.”
February 3, 2021
OICR and Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Toronto launch the OICR-JLABS Cancer Symposium Series, featuring leaders, innovators and trail blazers in cell therapy
On January 28, OICR and JLABS @ Toronto hosted the inaugural symposium of their Cancer Symposium Series, focused on horizons and controversies in cell therapy for cancer treatment. Invited speakers from around the world took a deep dive into the promise of gene therapy and the key challenges that they’re working to overcome.
The event was hosted by the Regional Head of JLABS Canada, Allan Miranda, and OICR’s President and Scientific Director, Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi. Guest speakers included Dr. James Yang from the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Emily Titus, Vice President at Notch Therapeutics, and Dr. Michael Maguire, CEO of Avectas.
- Dr. Yang reviewed the notable advancements made in Adoptive T cell Therapy (ACT) for certain cancers, like melanomas. Despite these advancements, he emphasized the importance of further research since most of the common cancers that kill people have yet to be addressed using immunotherapy. His presentation outlined some key scientific and biological challenges in developing effective ACT for epithelial cancers, highlighting that epithelial cancers, which represent the vast majority of cancer cases, have a lower mutational burden relative to melanomas, often have a limited number of tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes, and are difficult to mimic in experimental models.
- Dr. Titus presented Notch Therapeutics’ platform for generating T cells and other immune cells from stem cell lines. The team at Notch, which has expanded from Toronto to Vancouver and Seattle, is leveraging their platform to build a pipeline of sophisticated T cell therapeutic products.
- Dr. Maguire shared Avectas’ automated GMP engineering platform, SOLUPORE, which is built to enable the ex-vivo manufacture of gene modified cell therapy products. He emphasized the importance for improved complex engineering solutions to address solid tumours.
The event highlighted the potential of cancer cell therapy and the technologies that will advance the field of cell therapy in the future. The event recording can be accessed here.
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