July 8, 2020

Protecting cancer patients from COVID-19: world-first clinical trial tests a novel immune-boosting strategy

Dr. Rebecca Auer with colleague. Credit: The Ottawa Hospital

In the race to find new ways to prevent and treat COVID-19, OICR-supported researchers have launched an innovative clinical trial focussed on strengthening the immune system for one of the most vulnerable populations – cancer patients.

The trial involves IMM-101, a preparation of safe, heat-killed bacteria that broadly stimulates the innate, or “first-response,” arm of the immune system. The researchers hope that boosting cancer patients’ immune systems with IMM-101 will protect them from developing severe COVID-19 and other dangerous lung infections.

Researchers from The Ottawa Hospital came up with the idea for the trial and worked with the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) at Queen’s University to design and run it in centres across the country. Funding and in-kind support, valued at $2.8 million, is being provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, BioCanRx, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, ATGen Canada/NKMax, and Immodulon Therapeutics, the manufacturer of IMM-101.

“An effective vaccine that provides specific protection against COVID-19 could take another year or more to develop, test, and implement,” says Dr. Rebecca Auer, study lead, surgical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “In the meantime, there is an urgent need to protect people with cancer from severe COVID-19 infection, and we think this immune stimulator, IMM-101, may be able to do this.”

“This trial could support an important change to the standard of care for cancer patients by administration of IMM-101 prior to starting cancer treatment,” says Dr. John Bell, Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Scientific Director of BioCanRx and co-lead of OICR’s Immuno-oncology Translational Research Intitiative. “Accelerating to the clinic, biotherapeutics that can enhance the quality of life of those living with cancer.”

The trial, called CCTG IC.8, has been approved by Health Canada and is expected to open at cancer centres across Canada this summer. People who are interested in participating should speak with their cancer specialist.

“OICR is excited to be collaborating on such a landmark clinical trial supporting cancer patients in this unprecedented time,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director, OICR. “IMM-101 may be an effective approach to protect our vulnerable patients not only against COVID-19, but also to boost their immune system to fight cancer.”

Read the full release.

June 29, 2020

New radiotherapy method improves long-term survival

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

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

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

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

Continue reading – New radiotherapy method improves long-term survival

June 26, 2020

Opening the virtual floodgates for cancer research and discovery

OICR’s Genome Informatics team announces international release of the ICGC-ARGO Data Platform, the all-in-one data hub for the largest clinical-genomic data sharing initiative in the world

Dr. Christina Yung

We’re in the midst of an era of big data that is changing the way we understand the world – including how we study, diagnose and treat cancers. 

Improvements in sequencing technology and computational power have allowed us to collect massive amounts of information about cancer patients and their tumours. This information, however, is only powerful if it can be accessed by those who can transform big data into new discoveries. 

Over the last decade, OICR’s Genome Informatics has built a reputation for developing robust big data portals that provide cancer data access to thousands of researchers around the world. Now, the Genome Informatics team has set out to do it again – this time with bigger data. 

Continue reading – Opening the virtual floodgates for cancer research and discovery

June 25, 2020

CanPath Awarded $2.1 million CIHR Grant for SUPPORT-Canada COVID-19 Initiative

The SUPPORT-Canada initiative will capture data and biospecimens in order to identify factors contributing to COVID-19 susceptibility, severity and outcomes.

Dr. Philip Awadalla

CanPath (the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health), co-led by OICR Investigator Dr. Philip Awadalla, has been awarded a $2.1 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through their COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding competition. The initiative, titled SUrveying Prospective Population cOhorts for COVID-19 pRevalence and ouTcomes in Canada (SUPPORT-Canada),aims to capture data and biospecimens to enable population-level surveillance. SUPPORT-Canada will enable researchers and clinicians to find factors contributing to COVID-19 susceptibility, severity and outcomes, thus identifying factors predisposing individuals or communities across Canada to a high risk of infection.

“The integration of clinical programs with our broader existing population cohort infrastructure creates the opportunity to rapidly assess patterns across Canada, while discovering and tracking critical biological and environmental determinants of disease susceptibility and severity for COVID-19,” says Awadalla, who is the lead Principal Investigator for the SUPPORT-Canada Initiative and National Scientific Director of CanPath.

Continue reading – CanPath Awarded $2.1 million CIHR Grant for SUPPORT-Canada COVID-19 Initiative

June 24, 2020

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

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

Group of logos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU)

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

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

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

June 23, 2020

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

Group of logos

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2020

Diagnosing brain tumours with a blood test

A blood test to diagnose and classify tumours could be revolutionary and practice-changing for patients and clinicians alike. In many cases, a simple blood sample could take the place of more invasive surgery to obtain tissue samples – resulting in better treatment planning and less anxiety for patients.

University Health Network’s (UHN) Drs. Daniel De Carvalho and Gelareh Zadeh collaborated to combine advanced technology with machine learning to develop a highly sensitive and accurate blood test to detect and classify brain cancers. Photo Credit: UHN

In an OICR-supported study recently published in Nature Medicine, researchers have shown that a simple but sensitive blood test can accurately diagnose and classify different types of brain tumours. With further research and development, the test could serve as a less-invasive method to detect, diagnose and classify the severity of brain tumours.

The study was also presented virtually on June 22 at the Opening Plenary Session of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2020: Turning Science into Lifesaving Care.

Continue reading – Diagnosing brain tumours with a blood test

June 17, 2020

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

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

Deeba Ensan

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

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

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

June 16, 2020

OICR joins European consortium to ‘enable and unlock biology in the open’

OICR’s Drug Discovery Program and the Structural Genomics Consortium join Europe’s new large-scale collaboration focused on generating open-access chemical tools for disease research and drug development

Richard Marcellus
Dr. Richard Marcellus, Principal Research Scientist and Group Leader in OICR’s Drug Discovery Program

Developing a new drug is a long, arduous and expensive process, requiring carefully-designed chemical compounds and the expertise to turn these compounds into medicines. In a massive international effort to accelerate this process, Europe’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) has recently launched a five-year, €66M, 22-partner consortium, EUbOPEN. OICR is a proud EUbOPEN partner.

Over the next five years, the consortium’s 22 participating organizations are teaming up to develop chemical probes and share those probes openly with the scientific community. Together, they will develop these chemical tool compounds for 1,000 proteins, representing a third of all druggable proteins in the human body.

Continue reading – OICR joins European consortium to ‘enable and unlock biology in the open’

June 11, 2020

Community-driven initiative finds new potential avenue of ovarian cancer treatment

Dr. Trevor Shepherd

OICR-funded researchers identify promising targets to shut down the spread of ovarian cancer

Despite new targeted therapies, ovarian cancers often spread to other organs in the body and become resistant to drugs, leading to nearly 2,000 deaths in Canada each year according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Dr. Trevor Shepherd is committed to finding new solutions for women with this disease.

In an initiative supported by local ovarian cancer survivors and philanthropic donors, Shepherd and collaborators have discovered a new way to shut down the spread of ovarian cancer. In their recent study published in Cancers, they found a molecular pathway that ovarian tumours require to spread to other organs. The study pinpoints two key proteins along this pathway – LKB1 and NUAK1 – as potential drug targets.

Continue reading – Community-driven initiative finds new potential avenue of ovarian cancer treatment

June 9, 2020

FACIT recognized with 2020 Venture Capital Regional Impact Award by the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association (CVCA)

Award acknowledges FACIT’s commercialization impact in growing Ontario’s life sciences industry

FACIT, a commercialization venture firm, has been nationally recognized with CVCA’s 2020 Venture Capital Regional Impact Award for Ontario. The CVCA helps to set the foundation for greater collaboration, innovation, growth and market intelligence for Canadian private capital professionals. The Venture Capital Regional Impact Award celebrates firms whose investments have positioned portfolio companies to make a meaningful mark within both their community as well as the broader niche sector. The award competition considers the most impactful private equity organizations across all sectors including IT, AgTech, Healthcare, and CleanTech.

FACIT’s award was specifically related to the 2019 historic US$1B partnership between its portfolio companies, Propellon Therapeutics (“Propellon”) and Triphase Accelerator (“Triphase”), and US pharma giant Celgene (acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company). The partnership represents one of the largest oncology licensing transactions for a preclinical asset in Canadian history, and the largest biotech asset transaction worldwide for academia. Moreover, this deal helped to solidify a “made in Ontario” development pathway for commercialization of oncology innovations, as the asset at the heart of the transaction originated from FACIT’s strategic partner, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). FACIT’s strategic seed investment of $3M was critical in putting Ontario intellectual property (IP) in a position of strength to negotiate a transaction with maximum regional impact. The collaboration with Triphase anchors R&D jobs, clinical trials and industrial development in Ontario, benefiting both the economy and patients. 

Through financial support from Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities, FACIT has a mandate to translate Ontario’s most promising cancer innovations and maximize the value of the province’s investment in research and healthcare. With a portfolio that has attracted over $850 million in investment to Ontario, FACIT is actively building companies with entrepreneurs to accelerate healthcare innovation and retain IP value, jobs and industrial development in Canada. Its success in locally commercializing medical technology, health IT, imaging, and therapeutics is a direct result of the integration of outstanding science, Ontario First seed capital, and industry experience into a novel commercialization venture model. Not only have FACIT-supported ventures attracted remarkable life science financings, but every dollar invested by FACIT has attracted $20 dollars of private equity to the province.

“We are proud of the team’s work to help demonstrate the value of seed-stage investing in the commercialization of Propellon and Triphase, and we thank CVCA for this honour and recognition by our industry peers,” said Dr. David O’Neill, President of FACIT. “The rapid growth of our portfolio demonstrates the power of biotechnology to capitalize on Ontario’s world-class cancer science, compete in the innovation economy and make a difference in the fight against cancer.”

“This is a great achievement and recognition that FACIT is successfully driving significant benefits to the Ontario innovation economy, building on the research strength of OICR,” said Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR.

“Congratulations to FACIT on receiving the CVCA award for their leadership in Ontario’s commercialization sector,” said the Honourable Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “FACIT has made smart and strategic investments in Ontario’s rapidly developing biotech sector. The firm is an important partner in ensuring that the province’s intellectual property is captured, both for the local economy and patients living with cancer.”

Read more on facit.ca.

June 9, 2020

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

The future of brain cancer research

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

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

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

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

What spurred this research question?

Dr. Antony Michealraj.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sachin Kumar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Page »