December 6, 2019

Pin-pointing prostate cancer: Bringing MRI-guided biopsies to men across Ontario

Dr. Laurence Klotz of the Sunnybrook Research Institute
Dr. Laurence Klotz, urologic surgeon and researcher at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

OICR-funded clinical trial shows value in advanced biopsy techniques for men with low-risk prostate cancer

Many of the 23,000 men across Canada who will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year won’t need aggressive treatment. Instead, men with low-risk or slow-growing cancers may be offered ‘active surveillance’, where their healthcare team monitors their cancer closely with regular tests, scans and biopsies. Dr. Laurence Klotz, a world leader in active surveillance, is working to improve how surgeons in Ontario and across Canada perform these important prostate biopsies.

Klotz, who is a leading urologic surgeon and researcher at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, teamed up with collaborators in London, Hamilton, Kitchener and Toronto to bring the latest MRI-guided prostate biopsy techniques to patients across the province. With OICR’s support, they evaluated the use of MRI-targeted biopsies, where a surgeon uses MRI images to help guide biopsy needles, relative to traditional biopsies, and found that the use of MRI results in 50 per cent fewer failures of surveillance. The findings from their two-year study were recently published in European Urology.

“As shown in other countries like the U.K. and Australia, using MRI before biopsies can reduce the diagnosis of insignificant cancers, selectively find aggressive cancers and reduce the number of false negatives,” says Klotz. “Our study showed that using MRI allows us to better pinpoint prostate cancers as they progress.”

Learnings from this study have helped inform the design of a new trial, called PRECISE, that is evaluating whether MRI can replace biopsies and spare some men from the associated side effects. Results from PRECISE will be submitted for publication in the next few months.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for better prostate cancer diagnosis,” says Klotz. “This means we’re one step closer to ensuring each man receives the most appropriate treatment for his individual cancer.”

Read more about PRECISE.

December 5, 2019

Bridging the GAPP: Bringing new diagnostic tests to patients

Jane Bayani talks about how OICR is partnering with Thermo Fisher Scientific to bring new diagnostic tests from the lab into the clinic and how Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) is making that possible.

December 3, 2019

OICR’s Dr. Trevor Pugh receives $1 million grant from The TD Ready Challenge

Funding will support Pugh’s innovative work in blood-based cancer detection and screening

OICR’s Dr. Trevor Pugh poses for a photo with his co-applicant Dr. Raymond Kim. (TD Bank Group)

Dr. Trevor Pugh, OICR’s Director of Genomics and Senior Investigator, has been named one of ten winners of the 2019 TD Ready Challenge.

The award, which is valued at $1 million, will support Pugh’s research over the next three years as he and collaborators, including Dr. Raymond Kim at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, develop an effective blood test for early cancer detection. The test will aim to help those with hereditary cancer syndrome, including individuals with Lynch Syndrome and people that carry BRCA1/2 mutations.

“People who carry genetic changes that place them at a high risk of cancer often face significant health, travel and financial burdens,” says Pugh. “Not all surveillance tests are readily accessible in remote or lower-income regions, so many of these people do not undergo necessary proactive preventative screening. We want to help fix that.”

With TD’s funding, Pugh, Kim, and collaborators across Canada will work to create an accessible blood-based screening test that can detect cancers earlier than current methods, and guide more personalized management of individuals at high risk of developing the disease.

“This project hinges on close collaboration and coordination with patients and clinical teams caring for them,” says Pugh. “TD’s support will further amplify the impact of our work, especially that of our team’s clinical lead, Dr. Kim, as he mobilizes hereditary genetics clinics for the benefit of patients across Canada.”

“TD’s support will allow our Ontario scientists to build on their leadership in early cancer detection and screening,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR. “We would like to thank TD for having the vision to support such an important project that will positively impact the health of Canadians. We would also like to congratulate Dr. Pugh and his team, and look forward to their continued progress in making cancer screening more accessible.”

As part of TD’s $1 billion commitment to community giving, the 2019 TD Ready Challenge encouraged organizations across North America to create innovative solutions that help increase equitable health outcomes and focus on preventative efforts. In total, TD awarded $10 million for the 2019 Challenge to deliver innovative healthcare solutions to those that need it most.

“OICR has brought forward a creative and scalable solution to help increase equitable health outcomes for underserved and remote communities,” says Andrea Barrack, Global Head, Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship, TD Bank Group. “Being a winner of the TD Ready Challenge is a testament to the skill, ingenuity, and vision of its creators, as well as their dedication to improving the health of their communities and opening doors to a more inclusive tomorrow.”

A full list of The 2019 Ready Challenge winners as well as more information about the challenge can be found at www.td.com/thereadychallenge.

November 26, 2019

Three internationally-recognized cancer researchers join OICR’s Investigator Awards Program

New OICR Investigator Awards recipients Drs. Tricia Cottrell, Anna Panchenko and Parisa Shooshtari.

Toronto – (November 26, 2019) Today, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) announced three new Investigator Award (IA) recipients, reinforcing OICR’s commitment to recruit and retain world-class cancer researchers across Ontario.

The awards are for up to $350,000 per year for up to six years, providing stable research funding and salary support for recipients to establish their laboratories and build their research platforms within Ontario. They bring with them expertise in big data, machine learning, multi-omics analysis and immuno-oncology. The new recipients are:

  • Dr. Tricia Cottrell
    Clinician Scientist I Award
    Cottrell is a pathologist and immunologist from Johns Hopkins University who recently moved to Kingston to become an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University and Senior Investigator in the Canadian Cancer Trials Group. Cottrell focuses on mapping the interactions between the immune system and cancer cells as patients undergo treatment in order to develop new biomarkers that can better predict the course of a patient’s disease.
  • Dr. Anna Panchenko
    Senior Investigator Award  
    Panchenko was recently recruited to Kingston from the National Center for Biotechnology Information where she developed several methods and algorithms to study the molecular mechanisms behind cancer. Panchenko’s methods have been widely used by thousands of scientists from around the world to better understand the causes of cancer progression. She is now a Professor at Queen’s University and holds a Tier I Canada Research Chair.
  • Dr. Parisa Shooshtari
    Investigator I Award
    Shooshtari is an Assistant Professor at Western University in London, where she is establishing her first laboratory as an independent researcher. Joining the OICR community with experience from Yale University, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). Shooshtari brings unique expertise in developing computational, statistical and machine learning methods to understand the biology underlying complex diseases like cancer.

With their new appointments as OICR Investigators, Cottrell, Panchenko and Shooshtari join 25 other IA recipients as part of OICR’s collaborative cancer research community of more than 1,900 highly-qualified personnel across 23 Ontario institutes. Since its inception in 2006 the IA program has provided funding to recruit and keep world-class cancer researchers and clinician scientists in universities, hospitals and research centres across Ontario.

“Sustainable funding for talented scientists is critical to building a strong research ecosystem that will deliver the next wave of innovations and discoveries. The Investigator Award program is key to attracting and keeping top cancer researchers in Ontario,” says Dr. Christine Williams, Deputy Director and Interim Head, Clinical Translation at OICR. “We are particularly pleased that all three awards have been given to accomplished female scientists and are proud to offer our support as they establish their research programs in Ontario.”

“We are thrilled to welcome these highly-regarded researchers and look forward to their contributions to the health of Ontarians and the province’s cancer research sector,” says Hon. Ross Romano, Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities. “Investing in top talent will allow Ontario to stay at the forefront of bio-medical research and realize the benefits of advancements in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment more quickly.”

As professors at their respective academic institutions, the three new IA recipients will take part in providing high-quality training to students in areas such as computer science and machine learning. Technological advancements and an evolving global economy are changing work in Ontario. These new, unique, cross-appointed positions will strengthen Ontario’s cancer research capacity while helping prepare students for careers in a rapidly-evolving knowledge-intensive industries.

For more information about the Investigator Award program, visit www.oicr.on.ca/investigator-awards.

November 21, 2019

Researchers teach hand-held DNA sequencing devices to read a new language

Paul Tang, Computational Biologist, and Philip Zuzarte, Scientific Associate pose for a photo at OICR headquarters.
Paul Tang, Computational Biologist, and Dr. Philip Zuzarte, Scientific Associate pose for a photo at OICR headquarters. Tang and Zuzarte were central to OICR’s contributions to the study.

International research group unlocks the promise of nanopore native RNA sequencing

Studying RNA may offer new answers to cancer – and the tools to read RNA directly are now in our hands.

An international research consortium, led in part by Dr. Jared Simpson at OICR, has developed new laboratory protocols and a suite of software tools that will allow the research community to exploit the promise of direct RNA sequencing.

Dr. Jared Simpson, OICR Investigator.

These techniques, published recently in Nature Methods, represent the first large-scale exploration of human RNA using nanopore sequencers – the advanced handheld sequencing devices that can read long strands of RNA.

“Unlike traditional sequencing devices that read copies of RNA strands that are cut into little pieces, nanopore sequencing allows us to study long strands of RNA directly without losing important information in the copying and cutting process,” says Paul Tang, Computational Biologist at OICR and co-first author of the publication. “Our methods combine the power of reading RNA directly with the power of long-read sequencing, enabling an entirely novel way to study cancer biology.”

In collaboration with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California Santa Cruz, Tang and Simpson developed the software methods that could decode the output data from a nanopore sequencer. Their methods used a machine learning technique, called a Hidden Markov Model, to determine the letters of code within an RNA strand.

“With these methods, we’ve shown that you can leverage nanopore RNA sequencing to gain a lot of valuable information that we couldn’t have otherwise,” Tang says. “We’re very happy to see this work published because we are enabling others to study a new aspect of cancer biology and we look forward to the research discoveries to come.”

These new methods have been integrated into Simpson’s already-popular nanopolish software suite which is routinely used by the nanopore community around the world.

Read more about Simpson’s work in our 2018-2019 Annual Report.

November 20, 2019

Study of Ontario health data offers new directions in sarcoma research and treatment

Dr. Anthony Bozzo, Orthopedic Surgery Resident, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and Dr. Michelle Ghert, Orthopedic Oncology Surgeon, HHS and Professor, McMaster University pose for a photo against a black background.
Dr. Anthony Bozzo, Orthopedic Surgery Resident, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and Dr. Michelle Ghert, Orthopedic Oncology Surgeon, HHS and Professor, McMaster University.

Research group draws on local health data to conduct the first ever population-level study of sarcoma treatment

The world knows Terry Fox but little is known about how his type of cancer is treated today.

Sarcoma – a relatively rare type of cancer that forms in tissues and bones – may be treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but treatment recommendations are vastly diverse. How well a treatment regimen will work is difficult to predict.

Recently, a Hamilton-based research group, supported in part by OICR, performed the first ever Canadian population-level study of sarcoma treatment. The study, which was recently published in Sarcoma, leveraged historical health data from nearly 4,700 patients and uncovered two key trends in treatment across various stages of the disease.

Firstly, they discovered an increasing use of radiation therapy for Stage 1 and Stage 2 sarcomas, also known as non-metastatic sarcomas. Dr. Anthony Bozzo, Orthopedic Surgery Resident at Hamilton Health Sciences and first author of the study says this trend aligns with our growing understanding of early stage sarcoma.

“This observation is concordant with two data-driven sarcoma prognostic models which generally display increased survival and lower chance for local recurrence for Stage 2 sarcomas treated with radiation therapy.” 

Secondly, they found that over the ten-year period, the use of chemotherapy in patients with Stage 4 soft tissue sarcoma has significantly increased by 36 per cent.

“The trend in increasing chemotherapy use is surprising to us because the current literature does not indicate a significant survival benefit from chemotherapy in advanced soft tissue sarcomas,” says Dr. Bozzo. “Chemotherapy, however may benefit some patients and it may also be used for palliative purposes in others.”

The study group is now digging deeper into similar datasets to see if they can predict how a sarcoma patient would respond to treatment based on historical data. With this knowledge, they could provide the cancer care community with survival statistics that can help oncologists and patients create better treatment plans with more confidence.

Dr. Michelle Ghert, Orthopedic Oncology Surgeon with Hamilton Health Sciences, Professor at McMaster University and senior author of the study, comments on the importance of leveraging our local health data.

“We are fortunate in Ontario to have access to a centralized source of health data,” she says. “We can use this real-world evidence to see how research is applied in our health care system, find inconsistencies or gaps in our knowledge, and in turn, make recommendations to help improve cancer care locally and across Ontario.”

November 18, 2019

Potential new approach to T-cell therapy shows early promise in the lab

Drs. Yonghong Wan and Scott Walsh
Drs. Yonghong Wan and Scott Walsh

McMaster University researchers validate a new treatment approach that could help bring the benefits of Adoptive T-cell therapies to patients with solid tumours

Adoptive T-cell therapy (ACT) is an emerging form of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s own re-engineered immune cells to eliminate their cancer. Although ACT is effective against specific types of cancer, like certain blood cancers, these therapies are ineffective against the majority of common tumours.

Researchers at McMaster University are developing a new combination approach that could overcome the limitations of current ACT, and bring the benefits of this promising therapy to many more patients.

The approach, as recently described in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, combines ACT with specially-designed vaccines, called oncolytic virus vaccines (OVVs), to bring about the complete destruction of a solid tumour.

Dr. Scott Walsh, Postdoctoral Fellow in Dr. Yonghong Wan’s lab at McMaster University and first author of the publication, describes the “push and pull” mechanism behind their combination approach.

“We found that oncolytic viruses could stimulate the implanted T-cells to proliferate. In other words, they could push the cancer-fighting cells to multiply,” says Walsh. “Then we found that these viruses could also pull the cancer-fighting T-cells into the core of the tumour, which simply could not be done with ACT alone.”

In this study, the research group discovered that their ACT/OVV combination approach could engage the entire immune system to eliminate solid tumours and generate a long-term tumour-resisting effect in experimental animal models. Whereas current ACT can only kill specific tumour cells, their approach was effective at eliminating the various types of cells within solid tumours.

“Usually, ACT can only target the tumour cells that have a specific set of molecular markers. This is a problem because tumours can often shed these marked cells and return with a vengeance,” Walsh says. “Our approach engages the immune system as a whole, not just the re-engineered cells, to eliminate a broader variety of tumour cells and prevent the tumour from coming back over the long term.”

To bring this new approach into the next stage of development, the study group teamed up with experts across the province through OICR’s Immuno-oncology Translational Research Initiative. The team includes researchers with deep immuno-oncology expertise and extensive commercialization experience.

“Bringing this idea into the next stage of development requires collaboration across areas of expertise,” says Walsh, who holds a patent on the combination approach. “We’re looking forward to building on our past successes and using our collective expertise to move into more advanced animal models, and then onto clinical trials.”

November 13, 2019

Winning presentation points to more personalized medicine at OMPRN Pathology Matters meeting

OICR and OMPRN leaders pose for a photo with students and fellows who presented at the fourth annual Pathology Matters meeting in Ottawa.

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.

Dr. Brian Keller

“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.

Learn more about the OMPRN

November 11, 2019

Solving Big Data problems

Dusan Andric talks about Overture and how its interchangeable tools can help scientists to “worry less, science more”
https://www.overture.bio/

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

Ms. Donna Parr and Dr. Niclas Stiernholm

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

Dr. Rima Al-awar promoted to Head of Therapeutic Innovation and Drug Discovery at OICR


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.

Dr. Rima Al-awar

My goal is to continue to strengthen our current collaborations and forge new ones. 

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

FACIT and University of Toronto launch precision medicine company: Cellular Analytics

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
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