September 20, 2019

Harnessing the time before a patient’s surgery to accelerate cancer research

Ottawa cancer researchers and clinicians embrace the window of opportunity between a cancer diagnosis and treatment with a coordinated approach to clinical research

The time between a patient’s cancer diagnosis and their surgery presents a valuable “window of opportunity” to evaluate new treatment strategies. Short-term clinical trials during this period – also known as window of opportunity trials, window trials or phase 0 trials – can help researchers gain insights into the effects and the efficacy of a new potential treatment. Dr. Angel Arnaout at The Ottawa Hospital is putting window trials into practice.

“There are many nervous and anxious moments between diagnosis and their surgery but patients have limited options during this time,” says Arnaout.

“We saw an opportunity in this window of time to take action. We saw that we could help support patients who are waiting for surgery, while helping future patients through accelerating clinical research.”

Dr. Angel Arnaout

Arnaout, a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast cancers, assembled a cross-disciplinary team of medical oncologists, pathologists and other clinical research specialists at The Ottawa Hospital to strategically design and implement this new approach. They would collectively establish common priorities, decide on which interventions would be tested and work to streamline the patient’s journey throughout the process.

Dr. Angel Arnaout

Together, the team was motivated by the mutual benefits of all stakeholders involved. Namely, window trials can provide patients an opportunity to contribute and engage with cancer research while potentially improving the state of a patient’s disease. Meanwhile, these trials could ultimately expedite drug development by improving the understanding of a potential drug early in its development.

The team launched their first study in 2014, which found that patients were exceptionally eager to participate, and since then, launched and completed three additional window trials.

The first was a breast cancer trial on presurgical hormone therapy that helped establish the capacity and infrastructure for enrolling patients, organizing the investigations and giving patients short-term therapies. The second tested a potential cancer-fighting agent, chloroquine, and found that it had no effect on stopping breast cancer proliferation. The third trial debunked the idea that vitamin D – even at very high doses – can slow down the growth of breast cancer.

“These studies didn’t uncover a new therapy, but they did help us answer important questions that patients have, like ‘Will taking vitamin D help?’” says Arnaout. “These types of studies also provide a relatively quick method to test whether we should continue research into a particular avenue.”

The group at The Ottawa Hospital has recently teamed up with researchers from OICR to initiate a new breast cancer window-of-opportunity study to examine biomarkers of efficacy and resistance for another new drug candidate. The trial is planned to begin recruitment by mid-fall this year.*

Despite the benefits of these trials, Arnaout adds, it is still important to reduce unnecessary delays between diagnosis and surgery. Arnaout continues to minimize these delays at The Ottawa Hospital.

“We try our best to reduce wait times, but if patients have to wait – we can try to help them in the meantime while accelerating breast cancer research.”

*This new trial is co-led by Dr. John Hilton from The Ottawa Hospital and Dr. John Bartlett from OICR. Co-investigators include Drs. Laszlo Radvanyi, Melanie Spears, Arif Ali Awan, Mark Clemons, Greg Pond and Angel Arnaout.

July 17, 2019

New research unfolds the DNA “origami” behind brain cancers

Collaborative research group maps the three-dimensional genomic structure of glioblastoma and discovers a new therapeutic strategy to eliminate cells at the roots of these brain tumours

Current treatment for glioblastoma – the most common type of malignant brain cancer in adults – is often palliative, but new research approaches have pointed to new promising therapeutic strategies.

A collaborative study, recently published in Genome Research, has mapped the three-dimensional configuration of the genome in glioblastoma and discovered a new way to target glioblastoma stem cells – the self-renewing cells that are thought to be the root cause of tumour recurrence.

The research group integrated three-dimensional genome maps of glioblastoma with other chromatin and transcriptional datasets to describe the mechanisms regulating gene expression and detail the mechanisms that are specific to glioblastoma stem cells. They are one of the first groups in the world to perform three-dimensional genomic analyses in patient-derived tumour samples.

Dr. Mathieu Lupien

“The 3D configuration of the genome has garnered much attention over the last decade as a complex, dynamic and crucial feature of gene regulation,” says Dr. Mathieu Lupien, Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, OICR Investigator and co-author of the study. “Looking at how the genome is folded and sets contacts between regions tens to thousands of kilobases apart allowed us to find a new way to potentially tackle glioblastoma.”

Through their study, the group discovered that CD276 – a gene which is normally involved with repressing immune responses – has a very important role in maintaining stem-cell-like properties in glioblastoma stem cells. Further, they showed that targeting CD276 may be an effective new strategy to kill cancer stem cells in these tumours.

Lupien adds that advancements in three-dimensional genomics can only be made through collaborative efforts, like this initiative, which was enabled by OICR through Stand Up 2 Cancer Canada Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team, OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative and other funding initiatives.

“This research was fueled by an impressive community of scientists in the area who are committed to finding new solutions for patients with brain cancer,” Lupien says. “Our findings have emphasized the significance of three-dimensional architectures in genomic studies and the need to further develop related methodologies to make sense of this intricacies.”

Senior author of the study, Dr. Marco Gallo will continue to investigate CD276 as a potential therapeutic target for glioblastoma. He plans to further delineate the architecture of these cancer stem cells to identify more new strategies to tackle brain tumours.

Dr. Marco Gallo

“A key problem with current glioblastoma treatments is that they mostly kill proliferating cells, whereas we know that glioblastoma stem cells are slow-cycling, or dormant. Markers like CD276 can potentially be targeted with immunotherapy approaches, which could be an effective way of killing cancer stem cells, irrespective of how slowly they proliferate,” says Gallo, who is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. “Being able to kill cancer stem cells in glioblastoma could have strong implications for our ability to prevent relapses.”

Read more about OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative on oicr.on.ca or read about the Initiative’s current findings on OICR News.

June 10, 2019

It’s our health information: a goldmine for improving the quality of cancer care

Nicole Mittmann

OICR-supported researcher Dr. Nicole Mittmann leads collaborative initiative to determine the value of new cancer solutions and the burden of cancer care on Canada’s healthcare system

Canada is well known for its publicly funded healthcare system, its universal health coverage, and in most recent news – for the Toronto Raptors.

What is less recognized, however, is that with its distinctive healthcare system, Canada has unique healthcare reimbursement processes and resource needs, especially for the delivery of cancer care. While Canada collects some of the most robust and comprehensive healthcare data, Canadian datasets are underutilized in research and policy decision making.

Dr. Nicole Mittmann has set out to close this gap and, in turn, transform our administrative health information into tangible healthcare improvements. 

“As cancer-drug costs continue to rise, there is – now more than ever before – a need to understand the Canadian context with respect to costs and health system resource use,” she writes in Current Oncology.

Turning data into action

Mittmann, who was recently appointed as the Chief Scientist and Vice-President of Evidence Standards at the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH), sees Canada’s rich data as a goldmine for improving the management of diseases and the delivery of care.

“This information can be used to help us make decisions, help us plan and help us understand the value of new technologies,” she says. “It could also show us areas where we need to improve, or problems that weren’t apparent through practice alone, but we needed to reduce the barriers to using these data for research.”

Continue reading – It’s our health information: a goldmine for improving the quality of cancer care

June 4, 2019

New research projects to drive clinical adoption of novel cancer technologies and find ways to better deliver cancer services

10 projects to receive funding through OICR-CCO Health Services Research Network

Toronto (June 4, 2019) – The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) today announced funding for 10 projects as part of the OICR-Cancer Care Ontario (CCO) Health Services Research Network (HSRN). As part of the HSRN, these projects are focused on optimizing the delivery of existing cancer services and guiding the dissemination of new practices and technologies in cancer prevention, screening and care in Ontario.

The funded projects, which involve 103 researchers and clinicians based at 29 institutions across Ontario, as well as five institutions outside of the province, focus on at least one of six priority areas: using real-world evidence to advance innovations; data infrastructure, integration and mobilization studies; use of artificial intelligence and digital health tools; the adoption of accepted best practices related to precision medicine; knowledge translation and dissemination; and population health studies.

“Improving the delivery of cancer-related healthcare and ensuring that new innovations are properly introduced into clinical use is an essential part of improving outcomes for cancer patients,” says Dr. Christine Williams, Deputy Director and Interim Head, Clinical Translation, OICR. “The projects funded today will help integrate more leading-edge technologies and practices – such as artificial intelligence, immunotherapies and precision medicine – into Ontario’s healthcare system. OICR is proud to help enable improvements in frontline care for the people of Ontario through these projects.”

In total, the projects announced today will receive more than $2.7 million in funding over the next two years. These projects were awarded funding after a competitive process, including review by an expert panel. Together, these projects are a key arm of OICR’s Clinical Translation initiative, which is driving the translation of research findings into patient impact by partnering with the healthcare system.

“I congratulate the researchers who have received funding today and laud their efforts to optimize how we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer in Ontario,” says Hon. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. “As new technologies and best practices emerge, it is important that Ontario use its research expertise to deliver these advancements to the people as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

For details about the funded projects please visit: https://oicr.on.ca/research-portfolio/health-services-research/

Continue reading – New research projects to drive clinical adoption of novel cancer technologies and find ways to better deliver cancer services

May 30, 2019

Predicting the course of pancreatic cancer

Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains, Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and OICR Associate poses for a photo in a data centre.
Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains, Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and OICR Associate.

Meta-analysis of 1,200 patients with pancreatic cancer reveals a new way to identify those with very aggressive tumours who may benefit from alternate treatment approaches

Only half of pancreatic cancer patients who undergo standard chemotherapy and surgery live a year after their initial diagnosis. In the face of these dismal statistics, patients are faced with the challenge of deciding whether they want to proceed with treatment that may have unpleasant side effects. If clinicians could identify patients who would not benefit from standard therapies, they could help these patients make more informed treatment decisions or recommend alternative palliative treatment approaches.

As part of OICR’s Pancreatic Cancer Translational Research Initiative (PanCuRx) team led by Dr. Steven Gallinger, Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains recognized that computational modeling can be used to help inform these decisions, but to design a robust predictive model he would need much more data than any individual study had ever collected.

Building the data foundations

Haibe-Kains, who is a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and OICR Associate, began his investigation with a dataset from PanCuRx – the largest collection of genomic and transcriptomic data on primary and metastatic pancreatic tumours to date. He and his lab then incorporated an additional 1,000 cases of pancreatic tumours from studies around the world that had collected both patient samples and information about how each patient responded to treatment.

“The datasets that we aggregated were a mixed bag of different types of data collected through different profiling platforms by different institutions,” says Haibe-Kains. “We took on the challenge of harmonizing the heterogeneity of these resources which nobody else had done.”

Previously, the Haibe-Kains Lab developed a computational method that could make incompatible transcriptomic data compatible. They had used this method to find four new breast cancer biomarkers to predict treatment response and they recognized that they could apply similar methods to harmonize pancreatic cancer data as well.

The dataset resulting from the harmonization is now the largest pancreatic cancer dataset, and Haibe-Kains has made it freely available for other researchers to use and study through the MetaGxPancreas package.

Making a predictive model

Haibe-Kains and his team set out to develop a computational model that could predict if a patient would survive for a year after their biopsy. They used machine learning techniques to exploit their rich dataset, find common patterns in the genomic data of aggressive tumours, and developed PCOSP – the Pancreatic Cancer Overall Survival Predictor.

“Our approach was to look at how one gene was expressed relative to another and relate that to how long a patient lived after biopsy,” says Haibe-Kains. “That may sound simple, but that means dealing with nearly 200 million pairs of genes, which is a significant amount of data to compute.”

As recently described in JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics, the group refined PCOSP using ensemble learning – the combination of several machine learning techniques to improve a model’s accuracy of predictions.

“PCOSP is actually a combination of hundreds of models and not just one,” says Haibe-Kains. “We tested about a thousand models, selected the models that could predict early death very well and combined them to make a stronger classifier.”

Using prediction to power patient decisions

Haibe-Kains says that as the infrastructure for routine sequencing progresses, PCOSP can be translated into clinical practice to help clinicians determine which patients would not benefit from standard treatment and which may benefit from alternative treatment approaches.

“Pancreatic cancer is a challenging disease but if we can predict the course of the disease, we can give clinicians and patients more information. With that information, they can make more personalized decisions to improve their treatment and ideally, their lives.”

Read more about PanCuRx on OICR News.

September 10, 2018

Researchers find unexpected cells at the centre of recurrent leukemia

Dr. Mick Bhatia poses for a photo in his lab.

Hamilton researchers discover that cancer stem cells may not be the only culprits of acute myeloid leukemia relapse

Although current chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is effective in the short term, the disease often returns a few years after treatment. A new study suggests that the relapse of leukemia may not be caused by leukemic stem cells – a special set of cells that can avoid initial treatment by not dividing, then give rise to new cancerous cells after therapy – but rather a different class of leukemic cells.

Continue reading – Researchers find unexpected cells at the centre of recurrent leukemia

August 16, 2018

Researchers find common cell process key to therapy resistance

Ottawa researchers discover a new way to make cancer cells more susceptible to virus-based therapies

Over the past decade, researchers have made significant progress in designing oncolytic viruses (OVs) – viruses that destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed. However, some cancer cells are resistant to this type of therapy and their resistance mechanisms remain poorly understood.

Researchers at the The Ottawa Hospital and University of Ottawa, under the leadership of Dr. Carolina Ilkow, have discovered that a common cellular mechanism, RNAi, allows cancer cells to fight back against cancer-fighting viruses. Their findings, recently published in the Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, show that blocking RNAi processes in tumours can make cancer cells more susceptible to OVs.

Continue reading – Researchers find common cell process key to therapy resistance

July 11, 2018

New funding for the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Network will help more cancer patients access clinical trials

Toronto (July 11, 2018) – The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (the Partnership) today announced renewed funding for the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Network (3CTN). The funding will ensure Canada remains a world leader in academic cancer clinical trials, help to increase opportunities for patients to receive promising new treatments and continue to improve outcomes for cancer patients through research.

Continue reading – New funding for the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Network will help more cancer patients access clinical trials

July 9, 2018

New institute to make chronic disease prevention across Canada BETTER

Dr. Eva Grunfeld

The BETTER program has been awarded almost $3 million to train primary care providers as prevention experts across Canada

As the number of Canadians at risk of cancer and other chronic diseases continues to grow, so does the need for health professionals to deliver effective disease prevention and screening recommendations.

Continue reading – New institute to make chronic disease prevention across Canada BETTER

March 8, 2018

Collaborating to bring new treatment options to children with brain cancer

Medulloblastoma cells as seen under a microscope

OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative (TRI) and the Terry Fox Precision Oncology for Young People Program (PROFYLE) are partnering to share data and deliver improved treatment options to young brain cancer patients.

Continue reading – Collaborating to bring new treatment options to children with brain cancer

January 30, 2018

Early results from COMPASS trial demonstrate benefits of using genomic sequencing to guide treatment for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic Cancer and compass icon

Genomic profiling has allowed physicians to customize treatments for patients with many types of cancer, but bringing this technology to bear against advanced pancreatic cancer has proven to be extremely difficult. OICR’s pancreatic cancer Translational Research Initiative, called PanCuRx, has been conducting a first-of-its-kind clinical trial called COMPASS to evaluate the feasibility of using real time genomic sequencing in pancreatic cancer care. The research team recently reported early results from the trial, which show how they overcame the challenges of genomic profiling specific to pancreatic cancer and gained new insights about the disease.

PanCuRx is focused on improving treatment for pancreatic adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in Canada. The group’s approach centres around understanding the genetics and biology of PDAC to inform the selection of therapies, as well as the development of new treatments.

Continue reading – Early results from COMPASS trial demonstrate benefits of using genomic sequencing to guide treatment for pancreatic cancer

September 6, 2017

Large-scale genomic study helps set new course for paediatric brain cancer research

Dr. Michael Taylor

Today’s therapies for medulloblastoma, a highly aggressive form of childhood brain cancer, bring benefits to young patients but also come with serious side effects. Dr. Michael Taylor and a team of international collaborators recently published results in Nature of an ambitious project that analyzed the genomes of around 500 cases of medulloblastoma. Their goal was to identify gene mutations that are commonly mutated in the cancer, but not in the normal cells of patients.

Continue reading – Large-scale genomic study helps set new course for paediatric brain cancer research

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