January 13, 2020

Unique Toronto-based clinical trial reveals new subtypes of advanced pancreatic cancer

Drs. Faiyaz Notta and Steven Gallinger, Co-Leaders of OICR’s Pancreatic Cancer Translational Research Initiative (PanCuRx).

Researchers identify five subtypes of pancreatic cancer, uncovering new opportunities for targeted treatment of the aggressive disease

Toronto – (January 13, 2020) Researchers at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and the University Health Network (UHN) have discovered detailed new information about the subtypes of pancreatic cancer. A better understanding of the disease groups may lead to new treatment options and improved clinical outcomes for this lethal disease.

The study, published today in Nature Genetics, represents the most comprehensive analysis of the molecular subtypes of pancreatic cancer to date. Through detailed genomic and transcriptomic analyses, the research group identified five distinct subtypes of the disease (Basal-like-A, Basal-like-B, Classical-A, Classical-B, and Hybrid) with unique molecular properties that could be targeted with novel chemotherapies, biologics and immunotherapies.

“Therapy development for pancreatic cancer has been hindered by an incomplete knowledge of the molecular subtypes of this deadly disease,” says lead author Dr. Faiyaz Notta, Co-Leader of OICR’s Pancreatic Cancer Translational Research Initiative (PanCuRx) and Scientist at UHN’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “By rigorously analyzing advanced pancreatic cancers – which is the stage of disease that most patients have when they’re diagnosed – we were able to create a framework. This will help us develop better predictive models of disease progression that can assist in personalizing treatment decisions and lead to new targeted therapies.”

The study is based on data from more than 300 patients with both early stage and advanced pancreatic cancer who participated in COMPASS, a first-of-its-kind clinical trial that is breaking new ground in discovery science and personalized pancreatic cancer treatment. COMPASS is enabled by advanced pathology laboratory techniques at UHN and OICR, and next generation sequencing at OICR.

“Most pancreatic cancer research is focused solely on early stage – or resectable – tumours, but in reality, pancreatic cancer is often found in patients after it has advanced and spread to other organs,” says Notta. “COMPASS allowed us to look into these advanced cancers while treating these patients, develop a better understanding of the biology behind metastatic pancreatic cancer, and shed light on the mechanisms driving disease progression.”

Interestingly, the Basal-like-A subtype, which had been difficult to observe before this study, was linked with a specific genetic abnormality. Most of the Basal-like-A tumours harboured several copies of a mutated KRAS gene, also known as a genetic amplification of mutant KRAS. The research group hypothesizes that some of the subtypes arise from specific genetic changes that occur as pancreatic cancer develops.

“This research opens new doors for therapeutic development,” says Dr. Steven Gallinger, Co-Leader of OICR’s PanCuRx, Surgical Oncologist at UHN and Senior Investigator, Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. “We look forward to capitalizing on the promise of these discoveries, building on our understanding of pancreatic cancer subtypes, and bringing new treatments to patients with the disease.”

This research was supported by OICR through funding provided by the Government of Ontario, and by the Wallace McCain Centre for Pancreatic Cancer by the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, the Terry Fox Research Institute, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation, the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University and the Cancer Research Society (no. 23383).

November 16, 2017

CCRC brings Canadian cancer researchers together

A view of Vancouver's skyline

The 4th Canadian Cancer Research Conference, held at the beginning of November in Vancouver, was a major success. OICR was proud to support and participate in the conference, which brought together over 1,000 cancer researchers from across Canada.

Continue reading – CCRC brings Canadian cancer researchers together

October 24, 2017

Researchers discover genes behind the spread of lung cancer to the brain

Mohini Singh works in the lab

Brain tumours resulting from the spread of cancer from its primary location, known as brain metastases (BM), are the most common form of brain tumours in adults. A team of Ontario-based researchers recently identified two genes that seem to play a central role in BM in lung cancer patients – findings that could lead to improved biomarkers and treatments for BM.

In a study published in the journal Acta Neuropatologica, Mohini Singh and her collaborators focused on a class of cells they have termed Brain Metastases Initiating Cells (BMICs), which leave the primary site of cancer and migrate to the brain.

Singh, a biochemistry PhD candidate in the lab of Dr. Sheila Singh at McMaster University, explains the approach the team took to study these cells. “There was a lack of preclinical models that we could use to comprehensively study BMICs and understand the mechanisms behind them. To conduct our study we used brain metastases from lung cancer patients, which we cultured in conditions to enrich for BMICs, and then transplanted them into mice. This method allowed us to study BMICs within a living host, which provides a more accurate representation of the development of brain metastasis in humans.”

The researchers performed in vitro and in vivo RNA interference screens utilizing their unique BM models, and found two genes that were essential to the regulation of BMICs: SPOCK1 and TWIST2. “We discovered that SPOCK1 is a regulator of self-renewal in BMICs, playing a role in the initiation of lung tumours and their metastasis to the brain,” explains Singh. Furthermore, the results were clinically relevant. “Increased SPOCK1 expression was seen in lung cancer biopsies of patients with known brain metastases, and was correlated with poor survival.” Through protein-protein interaction mapping the researchers also identified new pathway interactors of the two genes that could be used as novel targets in treatment of BM in lung cancer patients.

“Identifying these two genes could be of great use in improving the treatment of lung cancer. In the future we could predict those patients who are most at risk of developing a brain metastasis and use drugs to target BMIC regulatory genes such as SPOCK1 and TWIST2 to destroy the initiating cells and to block the spread,” says Singh. “This would result in keeping the lung cancer locally controlled and therefore more treatable.”

OICR funding was used to establish this study with further significant funding coming from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Brain Canada Studentship.

June 28, 2017

Ontario researchers identify rare therapy-resistant stem cells linked to AML patient relapse

By combining new knowledge from the fields of stem cell biology and genetics, a group of Ontario researchers led by Dr. John Dick have solved the mystery of why some acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients relapse after initial treatment.

Continue reading – Ontario researchers identify rare therapy-resistant stem cells linked to AML patient relapse

March 28, 2017

OICR Charity Challenge raises funds for Canadian Cancer Society

Participants pose for a group photo after the event

At the OICR Scientific Meeting about 20 attendees started the final day of the meeting off early with a little fun, all in the name of a good cause. This year the OICR Charity Challenge was in support of the Canadian Cancer Society, which provides research funding as well as support services to cancer patients. Together the participants raised more than $1,500 to support the Society’s activities. Participants ran a mini-Relay For Life which entailed competing in five different “challenges”: accuracy, trivia, creativity, physical and teamwork.

Continue reading – OICR Charity Challenge raises funds for Canadian Cancer Society

August 16, 2016

New research published on the role of noncoding RNA in prostate cancer

Dr. He

Noncoding RNA may play a bigger role in driving prostate cancer development and progression that previously thought. 

On Monday the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre announced that prostate cancer researchers, funded in part by OICR, have pinpointed the key regulatory role of 45 noncoding genes in the development and progression of prostate cancer. The research was published in Nature Genetics.

Continue reading – New research published on the role of noncoding RNA in prostate cancer

June 29, 2016

OICR welcomes Dr. Christine Williams

Dr. Christine Williams

This April OICR welcomed Dr. Christine Williams as Deputy Director and Vice-President, Outreach. Williams joins OICR from The Canadian Cancer Society, where she was the Chief Mission Officer, responsible for overall leadership of the organization’s activities in research, policy, advocacy, information and support programs. Prior to that she was the national Vice-President, Research at the Society where she oversaw a cancer research budget of $40 million each year.

Continue reading – OICR welcomes Dr. Christine Williams