November 13, 2019
Dr. Brian Keller, an Anatomical Pathology Resident from Ottawa, was one of those recognized for outstanding presentations and innovative research at this year’s Pathology Matters meeting
Through his years of research training, Dr. Brian Keller developed expertise in culturing cancer cells. Under precise conditions in a controlled lab environment, he could take a part of a patient’s tumour and grow it into an experimental model for further research. Keller would study these models to find new treatments for future cancer patients, but he wondered if these models could also help patients today.
While he was an MD/PhD trainee, he received a patient’s sample that was unique. It defied the typical behaviour of a sample and grew remarkably well, faster than normal, exhibiting the cancerous traits that could make it an excellent experimental model.
The sample came from a patient with advanced melanoma whose disease had returned after multiple rounds of treatment. Keller recognized the opportunity to help.
“This patient was in a very difficult situation,” says Keller, who is now an Anatomical Pathology Resident at The Ottawa Hospital. “The standard treatments weren’t working and the patient’s oncologist was thinking of second- and third-line treatment options. Knowing that we had this model in the lab, we thought that we could potentially find a better treatment option if we looked at hundreds of available drugs.”
Keller mobilized the patient’s healthcare team around his idea to find new possible treatment options for the patient. He worked with the patient’s pathologist, medical oncologist, molecular geneticist, laboratory and research technicians, and several other graduate students to grow the tumour sample, analyze its DNA and test approximately 1,200 available drugs on it. Their results aligned with the oncologist’s clinical decision and the patient had an impressive response to treatment, Keller says.
“Every cancer is unique and we’re working towards getting the right treatments to the right patients at the right time,” says Keller. “This represents the direction in which our field is moving. I am hopeful that our generation of clinicians and healthcare providers can help bring more personalized and effective treatment to our patients.”
Keller went on to characterize the patient’s disease and found that it had a unique mutation in the BRAF gene that had never been modeled before. This novel experimental model will continue to serve as a research tool in Dr. John Bell’s lab at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, where Keller performed his research, and throughout the global scientific community. The team has made the model available through the American Type Culture Collection’s general repository and a manuscript of the case is under preparation.
“I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to train in Dr. Bell’s lab, where exploration and collaboration are strongly encouraged,” Keller says. “Without exploration, we cannot make discoveries, and without collaboration, we cannot bring our discoveries to our patients.”
Keller presented his findings at the fourth annual Pathology Matters meeting in early October, hosted by the Ontario Molecular Pathology Research Network (OMPRN). His story won him an Outstanding Presentation Award. Other presentation award recipients included:
- Dr. Lina Chen, Anatomical Pathology Resident, Queen’s University
- Christina Ferrone, PhD Candidate, Pathology and Molecular Medicine, Queen’s University
- Chelsea Jackson, PhD Candidate, Pathology and Molecular Medicine, Queen’s University
OICR would like to congratulate award recipients and thank the organizing committee for a successful meeting.
November 11, 2019
Dusan Andric talks about Overture and how these interchangeable tools can help scientists to “worry less, science more”
November 6, 2019
FACIT launches assessment of venture philanthropy models to scale Canadian commercialization of cancer research
Ms. Donna Parr and Dr. Niclas Stiernholm recruited to broaden public/private equity expertise
TORONTO, ON (November 6, 2019) – FACIT, a commercialization venture venture firm, reported on the expansion of its Executive-in-Residence program and new strategic initiatives. Ontario is home to world-leading cancer research connected through the collaboration model established by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), FACIT’s strategic partner. Growing market signals suggest Canadian philanthropy, oncologists and patients want more discoveries translated into therapies and technologies that directly impact cancer care, while also supporting Canadian entrepreneurialism. Commercialization of innovations is aligned with OICR’s translational mission and a strategic imperative for the province’s university and research hospital partners.Continue reading – FACIT launches assessment of venture philanthropy models to scale Canadian commercialization of cancer research
November 1, 2019
Al-awar joins OICR’s executive team with plans to expand drug discovery and development initiatives across Ontario
Dr. Rima Al-awar has joined OICR’s executive team as Head, Therapeutic Innovation and Drug Discovery. In this role, she will lead one of OICR’s three key priority areas, Therapeutic Innovation, which focuses on validating novel cancer drug targets and advancing therapeutic candidates through pre-clinical development. She will continue leading OICR’s Drug Discovery Program and will build upon that team’s exceptional work in her new position.
Here she discusses her new role and her plans to grow OICR’s Therapeutic Innovation platform.
What does this promotion mean for you and your team?
Since joining OICR, I have spent several years building an experienced and talented team that I’m very proud of. We have developed great assets and established fruitful partnerships with collaborators and industry partners. We have a very rich and promising portfolio of potential new cancer therapeutics.
I believe we are in a great position to expand and capitalize on our successes. My new position will allow me to take a strategic role in therapeutic innovation at OICR so that we can enable future successes both here, in Toronto, and across the province. I need to think of creative and strategic funding models, how best to strengthen the platform’s structure and establish additional synergistic partnerships in the community. In the long run, this means advancing more projects into development.
How will this new role allow you to do that?
I’ll have a seat at the table in strategic conversations with our executive team. I’ll bring a unique perspective with my expertise in drug discovery and development, and I look forward to representing Therapeutic Innovation, an important part of OICR.
In this role I will also help ensure that resources are allocated to the most promising projects. I’m a big proponent of focusing on select projects and doing them well and in a timely and competitive fashion as opposed to stretching our resources across too many projects, which often ends up slowing progress. In this position, I believe I can do that more effectively.
How does this new appointment differ from your previous position as Director of Drug Discovery?
I will still be leading the Drug Discovery team, but I’ll be relying on leaders within the team to take on some of my previous day-to-day responsibilities, and in turn, they will delegate some of their current responsibilities. I see this role as an opportunity to strengthen the Drug Discovery team and encourage the pace of career development within the team.
Within the scope of my new role, we are going to have to think creatively about progressing additional projects forward faster, which will mean harnessing new technologies and recruiting new expertise in different scientific disciplines.
When it comes to collaborations, I expect that my role will be just as collaborative as it was before. My goal is to continue to strengthen our current collaborations and forge new ones. We can’t bring new therapeutics to patients on our own.
What can we expect to see over the next year?
I want to explore the idea of expanding our breadth of collaborations to include biologics, immunotherapies, and novel drug delivery methods, technologies and models that impact drug discovery. I will be travelling to different research institutes across the province and outside of Ontario to look for more opportunities. The goal of this effort would be to identify and build on strengths in the community. We’re looking to enable and facilitate new, promising projects in areas of unmet needs. Expanding our network across Ontario is very important. We have built a strong foundation, we have deep expertise, a rich portfolio and now we are going to take it to the next level. I look forward to encouraging more synergy across our organization and Ontario.
October 30, 2019
Next generation liquid biopsy platform to revolutionize companion diagnostics
TORONTO, ON (October 30, 2019) – FACIT, a commercialization venture group, together with the University of Toronto (“U of T”), announced the creation of Ontario-based Cellular Analytics (the “Company”). Cellular Analytics is founded upon a proprietary microfluidic platform that enables molecular characterization of cancer at the level of single circulating tumour cells. The technology quantitatively detects sensitivity to immune-oncology agents ‘on-chip’ at both significantly lower sample volumes and at a fraction of the cost. Seed capital from FACIT’s Compass Rose Oncology Fund will be used to develop the non-invasive, commercial prototype of the Company’s lead product. This critical capital also allows Cellular Analytics to maintain its momentum and continue strategic discussions with potential partners and investors to attract follow-on financing.
The platform, with an initial application in lung cancer, was discovered at the U of T lab of Dr. Shana Kelley. The professor and serial entrepreneur will act as the Chief Scientific Officer of Cellular Analytics. “Dr. Kelley’s technology is rapid, exquisitely accurate and inexpensive, which positions the Company well for clinical application across a range of cancers and competing in the diagnostics market,” said Dr. David O’Neill, President, FACIT. “Partnering with the University of Toronto on exciting new biotechnology companies like Cellular Analytics is aligned with FACIT and OICR’s joint strategy to support entrepreneurship and translate the benefits of research to patients and the Ontario economy.”Continue reading – FACIT and University of Toronto launch precision medicine company: Cellular Analytics
October 21, 2019
Internationally-recognized computational biologist, Dr. Anna Panchenko joins OICR as Senior Investigator
OICR welcomes Dr. Anna Panchenko, Tier I Canada Research Chair, to Ontario’s cancer research community as OICR’s newest Senior Investigator
Recently recruited to Canada as a Tier I Canada Research Chair and OICR Senior Investigator, Dr. Anna Panchenko has chosen to establish her lab at the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, Queen’s University School of Medicine. OICR is proud to support Panchenko and her research endeavors with a Senior Investigator Award, which is given to researchers who have achieved national and international excellence and spent more than 10 years as independent investigators.
Panchenko joins the local research community with nearly two decades of experience at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. She is internationally recognized for her expertise in using computational biology to study cancer genomics and epigenetics, protein-protein interactions and nucleosome dynamics. Her methods have been widely used by thousands of scientists from around the world.
Here, she discusses her work and the opportunities that Ontario provides.
What is your research about?
Generally, there are two prongs to my research focus. The first is investigating cancer-related mechanisms. We’re looking at how mutations accrue – or accumulate – in cancer cells, which mutations are driving carcinogenesis and how these mutations may affect proteins and their interactions. The second is looking into how chromatin is dynamically regulated at a molecular level.
Both of these avenues are important to our understanding of cancer, and both areas of study need new computational methods and techniques. My group develops these methods and algorithms to better understand cancer progression to possibly come up with new targeted therapeutic strategies.
For example, some of my work focuses on identifying cancer-driving mutations – the changes in DNA that are at the root of cancers. Out of hundreds of point mutations, there are only a few that drive the disease. If we can find these mutations, we can discover new ways to predict the course of a patient’s disease, or new ways to treat the disease.
What excites you about your work?
I am excited by the beauty and complexity of biological systems. I am also excited by working with the dedicated, curious and smart people in our scientific community. My work isn’t just about making discoveries, it’s about designing methods to help other researchers to make their own discoveries.
What drew you to this field?
I grew up in Moscow and I was always interested in math and biology as a child. I was motivated to pursue science by my parents who are both scientists and the field of computational biology was a perfect combination of my two interests. Throughout my career, I met several other scientists who impressed me with their integrity, behavior and dedication to science. They inspired me to continue along this difficult but very gratifying path.
Why were you interested in coming to Canada? What’s next?
I love Canada, it feels like home. I’m now minutes away from Lake Ontario in a community of incredible scientists and clinicians. I feel like there are a lot of exciting opportunities here and I’m proud to be working in a high-caliber work environment. I appreciate the support from the government and I love the culture of collaboration. I’m excited to strengthen my collaborations with researchers at different departments of Queen’s University and across Ontario.
October 15, 2019
OICR Biostatistics Training Initiative Fellow and newly-minted PhD, Dr. Osvaldo Espin-Garcia, dedicates his career to cutting-edge clinical cancer research
For Dr. Osvaldo Espin-Garcia, an industry-based job wouldn’t suffice. Having already worked in banking, insurance and telecommunications, Espin-Garcia found that his skills in statistics could be applied to a field that he was much more passionate about. For him, that was health research.
Combining his skills in math with his interest in health, Espin-Garcia left his job in Mexico and moved to Canada to pursue the University of Waterloo’s Master of Mathematics program. His strong academic performance secured him an internship at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (PM) where he found his niche in statistical genetics.
“Despite advancements in sequencing technologies, the path between a new -omics discovery and applying that discovery in the clinic remains cumbersome and often costly, especially in large-scale studies,” says Espin-Garcia, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “We can use statistical techniques and tools to design better trials and make sense of this sequencing data in more efficient ways.”
Espin-Garcia’s internship laid the foundations for his PhD research, where he developed statistical methods and analysis tools to examine the data from genome-wide studies – studies that look at the entire set of genes across many individuals.
In these studies, researchers often examine a sample subset of patient genomes from a large group of patients. These samples are often selected randomly, but Espin-Garcia’s methods allow researchers to select these patients in a “smarter” way.
“Choosing patients randomly is an inefficient way to perform post-genome-wide studies since this strategy fails to incorporate the information that is already available,” says Espin-Garcia. “Our methods allow us to select subgroups of patients whose data will give us rich insights into challenging research questions. That’s what I’m here for, I’m here to help address important and challenging questions in health.”
For this work, Espin-Garcia was awarded a Biostatistics Training Initiative (BTI) Fellowship, which helped him fast-track the development of his methods and the completion of his PhD.
Now, as a Senior Biostatistician at PM, he is specializing in gastrointestinal cancer studies and continues to develop and apply new tools to support the clinical cancer research community.
“I am grateful for the support I’ve received throughout my training to build my collaborative relationships with clinicians and scientists and learn from incredible mentors,” says Espin-Garcia. “I look forward to supporting more cutting-edge clinical cancer research in the future.”
BTI, a training program co-led by OICR, the University of Waterloo and McMaster University, has supported numerous fellows, like Espin-Garcia, and other studentships over the last decade.
October 9, 2019
Change in just one letter of DNA code in a gene conserved through generations of evolution can cause multiple types of cancer
Toronto – (October 9, 2019) An Ontario-led research group has discovered a novel cancer-driving mutation in the vast non-coding regions of the human cancer genome, also known as the “dark matter” of human cancer DNA.
The mutation, as described in two related studies published in Nature on October 9, 2019, represents a new potential therapeutic target for several types of cancer including brain, liver and blood cancer. This target could be used to develop novel treatments for patients with these difficult-to-treat diseases.
“Non-coding DNA, which makes up 98 per cent of the genome, is notoriously difficult to study and is often overlooked since it does not code for proteins,” says Dr. Lincoln Stein, co-lead of the studies and Head of Adaptive Oncology at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). “By carefully analyzing these regions, we have discovered a change in one letter of the DNA code that can drive multiple types of cancer. In turn, we’ve found a new cancer mechanism that we can target to tackle the disease.”Continue reading – Researchers discover a new cancer-driving mutation in the “dark matter” of the cancer genome
October 8, 2019
OICR is proud to welcome Dr. Tricia Cottrell to Ontario’s cancer research community.
Dr. Tricia Cottrell, who is an immunologist and pathologist by training, is focused on the interplay between cancer cells and the immune system. She maps these complex interactions, as patients undergo treatment, to develop new biomarkers that can better predict the course of a patient’s disease.
Joining OICR from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, Cottrell brings unique expertise in studying the tumour immune microenvironment, specifically in lung cancer. Here, she discusses her transition and her new appointments at the Canadian Cancer Trials Group, Queen’s University and OICR.
How did you become interested in the field of immuno-oncology?
The idea of harnessing the immune system to control and eliminate cancer fascinates me.
My PhD research on the autoimmune disease scleroderma left me eager to find ways to study immune responses in human tissue. While pursuing this research through my anatomic pathology residency, I stumbled upon the revolution happening in cancer immunotherapy. There are a lot of interesting intersections between cancer immunology and autoimmunity, and I knew I wanted to dig in.
What problems and questions are you working to solve?
Generally, I look at different features of the immune response to cancer and find patterns in these features that are associated with a response to therapy. I’m addressing the question: can we predict which patients are most likely to respond to treatment?
When we have tools to answer that question, we can help patients decide which treatment is best suited for their unique disease.
How are you addressing those big questions?
As a pathologist, I start with simple observations made through a microscope. Then, I use techniques like multiplex immunofluorescence to understand the cells and molecules driving the patterns I see in the tissue. Finally, I integrate these observations with other –omics analyses of the same sample, like DNA or RNA profiling, in pursuit of better biomarkers. The ultimate goal is to have biomarkers that can accurately predict which therapy or combination of therapies is most likely to empower a patient’s immune system to eliminate their cancer.
Through these studies, we also identify patterns and molecular characteristics in the tumours of patients who respond poorly to treatment. We can use this knowledge to find mechanisms of resistance, or the ways that the cancer can evade treatment. Then we can develop new therapies to address these mechanisms.
You’ve been recognized and awarded for your research on several occasions. What is an achievement that most people don’t know about?
I never anticipated that my research as a pathologist would lead me to analyzing big data. I’m quite proud that I learned some computer programming and I continue to integrate new technologies and cutting-edge analytic approaches into my research.
A specific achievement I am proud of is developing a method to measure the response of lung cancer patients to checkpoint blockade therapy using microscopic features of their tumours. This method is now being validated in a large clinical trial and has been shown to work in other cancer types as well. We are currently investigating its potential as a pan-tumour biomarker that would allow unprecedented standardization of clinical trials across different cancer types.
Why did you choose to relocate to Kingston?
I was looking for an opportunity to expand my research focusing on patients enrolled in clinical trials. Kingston offered that opportunity through an appointment with the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG), which is based at Queen’s University where I am also an Assistant Professor.
At CCTG, I get to participate in the design of clinical trials, including arranging tissue collection and planning the correlative science (the study of the relationship between biology and clinical outcomes) that goes along with those trials. My goal is to make sure my research will be translatable to the clinic, or in other words – to find solutions that can be applied in practice.
I’m also personally very excited about the opportunity for my family to be here in Canada.
What are you looking forward to over the next year?
I look forward to maintaining my existing collaborations while broadening my research scope. I’ll be working to establish a laboratory-based platform that produces high-quality, large-scale multiplex immunofluorescence data from tumour tissue specimens. I also look forward to laying the groundwork for a data integration and analysis pipeline for tissue-based immunology studies.
Most of all, I’m excited to begin growing my own lab group. I hope to foster a collaborative team environment with individuals from diverse backgrounds in pathology, biology, immunology, bioinformatics and more.
October 7, 2019
International study, led by researchers at OICR, takes a deep dive into how prostate cancer is inherited and points to new opportunities for improved screening, monitoring, treatment and prevention
Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in men, but remains one of the most difficult to prevent and a challenge to treat. Some DNA mutations that lead to prostate cancer are inherited yet some collect over a lifetime. Understanding how these mutations interact and contribute to the disease could help patients and their doctors better manage the disease.
In a study, published today in Nature Medicine, Kathleen Houlahan et al. take a deep dive into the inherited factors driving prostate cancer and how these factors affect the course of the disease at a cellular level.
“Prostate cancer is thought to be, in part, an inherited disease,” says Houlahan, first author of the study and a PhD candidate at OICR. “The DNA that a man is born with has an effect on whether he will develop prostate cancer and how aggressive the cancer will be. We set out to uncover how this happens.”
The study investigated the connection between inherited mutations – also known as germline mutations – and a range of important DNA-regulating processes, like DNA methylation.
The associations found in the study, Houlahan says, are a resource that can help bridge our gap in understanding between germline mutations and the mutations that men acquire over their lifetime that eventually lead to prostate cancer.
“When we understand how inherited mutations work, patients with these mutations can be screened and monitored more effectively to ensure the patient is receiving the most appropriate treatment and avoiding unnecessary side effects,” says Houlahan. “We’ve seen this work for patients with mutations in the BRCA genes, but we still need more personalized options for the many men who are living with prostate cancer.”
Since germline mutations can be inherited and are present in nearly all cells in a man’s body, this research demonstrates the possibility of using non-invasive blood-based tests, rather than invasive tumour biopsies, to monitor prostate cancers.
“We could use these findings to help identify a man’s risk of cancer and catch it earlier,” says Houlahan. “Detecting the disease earlier could significantly improve treatment success.”
Houlahan’s study was enabled by data from the Canadian Prostate Cancer Genome Network (CPC-GENE), which have previously been used to find a DNA signature of aggressive prostate cancers and link how a prostate tumour evolves with the severity of the tumour, amongst other significant advancements. CPC-GENE findings serve as a resource for future research and a scaffold on which diagnostic tests and new therapies can be built.
This research was supported in part by OICR, Prostate Cancer Canada, the Terry Fox Research Institute, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Movember Foundation and the National Cancer Institute.
October 4, 2019
OICR is proud to announce two new partnerships between research trainees in Ontario and collaborators in Israel, supported by Joseph and Wolf Lebovic.
The Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Fellowship Program, a joint initiative between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC) and OICR, is supporting two new partnerships between local cancer researchers and those in Israel.
This is the second round of this fellowship program that aims to strengthen collaboration across the two countries by pairing trainees in complementary areas of expertise. Both projects focus on the interaction between tumours and the immune system to develop new and more effective therapeutic strategies for cancer.
Over the next two years, the new fellows will develop their mutually-beneficial partnerships, allowing them to further their research while building their collaboration skills.
“We are investing in talented trainees with the potential to make a significant impact in cancer research, while fostering international collaboration,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR. “We cannot wait to see what they will accomplish in the years to come.”
Teaming up to take on a new approach
Principal Investigator in Israel: Dr. Lior Nissim, Assistant Professor at IMRIC
Fellow: Natella Buketov, Master of Science student at IMRIC
Principal Investigator in Ontario: Dr. Samuel Workenhe, Assistant Professor at McMaster University
Fellow: Jeffrey Wei, Master of Science student at McMaster University
Developing viruses that alarm the immune system to fight against cancer is a sought after goal around the world. A common challenge with this approach is that cancer cells can often “shut off” or silence these alarms, and thus, the cancer cells remain undetectable to the immune system.
Workenhe and Nissim hypothesize that synthetic molecules – sequences of DNA that cannot be found in nature – could be used to overcome this challenge and effectively trigger an immune response against cancer cells.
Through the Lebovic Fellowship, these two research groups have teamed up to explore the possibility of using viruses, developed by the Workenhe Lab, to deliver synthetic molecules, developed by the Nissim Lab, to cancer cells. Over the next two years, they will work to optimize their platforms, develop the viruses and test them in infected cell cultures and tumour-bearing mice.
“There’s a lot of drive behind this project,” says Workenhe. “We both want to find a way to make this work and overcome the challenges of viral immunotherapies together.”
Partnering to accelerate research
Principal Investigator in Israel: Dr. Sheera Adar, Senior Lecturer at IMRIC
Fellow: Dr. Pooja Chauhan, Postdoctoral Fellow at IMRIC
Principal Investigator in Ontario: Dr. Carolina Ilkow, Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa
Fellow: Emily Brown, Master of Science student at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa
The Adar Lab and the Ilkow Lab are both interested in the SWI/SNF complex – a cellular machine that affects how our DNA is packaged and coiled.
The Adar Lab is working to better understand how SWI/SNF affects DNA damage repair in cancer cells. The Ilkow Lab is working to better understand how SWI/SNF can be altered to improve immunotherapies. They recognized that they can study SWI/SNF better together.
With the support of the Lebovic Fellowship, these groups are partnering to investigate SWI/SNF with two different approaches while sharing common methods, resources and expertise. By doing so, the researchers expect to reduce duplicative efforts and accelerate both projects. “I’m excited to be involved in the field of cancer immunotherapy,” says Brown. “Seeing that your work has direct impact is really rewarding, and I’m excited to help contribute to such an innovative approach.”
September 30, 2019
We are pleased to present the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) Annual Report for 2018/19.
Translating cancer research means bringing the best research discoveries to patients, and it’s at the heart of the work we do. OICR collaborates with researchers across Ontario and around the world to ensure Ontario’s most significant cancer research discoveries have maximum impact for patients and the province’s economy. This report highlights a selection of OICR’s many translational research successes over the last year, including:
- An unprecedented investigation into the dark matter of the human cancer genome, which discovered the causes of two thirds of cancers that were previously unexplained;
- A study that’s bringing next generation genomic sequencing to five Ontario cancer centres, helping match patients to targeted therapies and accelerating cancer research;
- Developing new software technologies to help bring portable nanopore sequencing into cancer research and care;
- A pan-Canadian initiative changing the landscape of lung cancer radiotherapy clinical trials and providing more treatment options to patients;
- The scientific and business excellence of Fusion Pharma Inc., which is developing innovative medical isotopes for treating cancer with reduced side effects.
We hope you enjoy learning more about OICR’s many achievements over the past year and we welcome your feedback at email@example.com.