June 7, 2017

EAGLE will help cancer research soar

Dr. Hilary Edgington

 Researchers from OICR and other institutions have created a new software program called EAGLE that mines data to understand the interactions between a person’s environment and their genetics. The tool has far-reaching uses, including oncology, and can provide researchers and clinicians with important information that can help personalize treatments for patients.

To learn more we spoke to Dr. Hillary Edgington, a Postdoctoral Fellow in OICR’s Informatics technology platform, which is led by Dr. Lincoln Stein. Edgington and her collaborators recently shared their research in the journal Nature Methods.

What was reported in your recent article?

One of the most important goals in biological research is to understand the ways that our genes can be impacted by the environment around us. The activity of genes can change due to a number of external factors from medication use to air pollution. This study introduces a new software tool called EAGLE to investigate how interactions between a person’s genotype and environmental exposures affect the way his or her genes are expressed.

What is unique about EAGLE?

EAGLE takes advantage of the fact that sometimes the two copies of a gene are unequally expressed, which allows us to compare small differences in those two copies within an individual where they operate in the same environmental conditions. This tool was shown to improve, in both power and accuracy, on detecting associations over standard interaction testing methods. Using EAGLE to test for interactions in two large cohorts (the Depression Genes and Networks study cohort and CARTaGENE) revealed significant associations between gene expression and environmental variables, including depression, exercise, blood pressure medication use and body mass index. This information is critical in advancing personalized healthcare initiatives, as it gives researchers and clinicians information with which to predict an individual’s health risks based on their unique genomic profile and lifestyle factors.

How can these findings be used in the area of cancer?

EAGLE is a tool that can be applied to data from any source. The information gleaned from the application of EAGLE to data provided by cancer patients – including testing for interactions between patients’ specific mutational profiles and exposures such as therapeutic treatments, the microenvironment of the tumour, or properties of the immune system – could help clinicians make more accurate predictions about individual patients’ prognoses and therapeutic options in the future.

What challenges did you and your collaborators face while creating EAGLE?

One of the main challenges with developing any new method is making sure that the results will be consistent across different groups of individuals. It is critical to perform tests in different groups in order to make sure that there is replication of any findings. For this reason, collaboration between different research groups is critical, and this is what brought the groups from OICR and Stanford University together on this project. At OICR we were able to use the resources that we have through the CARTaGENE cohort to perform a replication study. It showed that the associations EAGLE detected in the Depression Genes and Networks cohort are consistent across populations.

What are the next steps planned with this research project?

We will be able to use EAGLE in many future projects as a way to discover previously unknown interactions between any environmental variable of interest and the regulation of genes. As a follow-up to this study we may look more specifically at the gene-environment associations we observed in order to determine what the mechanism is that causes differences in gene expression.

June 5, 2017

OICR donates sequencer to Fleming College for high-tech training

Individuals from OICR and Fleming College pose for a photo in front of the sequencer.

Fleming’s Biotechnology-Advanced students have received a significant boost to their career preparation with the help of The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). Their investment in people is recognized through a very generous donation of an Illumina HiSeq DNA Sequencer to the Biotechnology-Advanced program, a benefit to Fleming College valued at $600,000. This new equipment will provide students with hands-on experience using cutting-edge automated instruments that are utilized widely across the biotechnology industry.

“Some of the best technicians in OICR’s genomic labs are Fleming College graduates. We are proud to pay-it-forward by helping the College give future life sciences researchers in Ontario hands-on training opportunities on real genomics equipment.” says Paul Krzyzanowski, Program Manager of Genome Technologies, OICR. “Illumina equipment is the backbone of most sequencing labs and it’s essential for today’s students to become familiar with the complexity around these machines with hands-on experience.”

The remarkable relationship between OICR and Fleming College has flourished over the last nine years. With its state of the art facilities and research, OICR has become a highly sought after internship agency for Fleming students since the first placement student in 2008. The support from OICR and Illumina helps Fleming College to lead the way in biotechnology training; contributing to excellence in academic programming that includes relevant experiences. The hands-on learning creates a positive impact towards the future of Fleming students and alumni, the success of employers and especially those who benefit from cancer research.

“We are very grateful for the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research for their investment in our students,” says Biotechnology Program Coordinator Ashvin Mohindra. “OICR provides a practical training component through their in-kind gifts and placement opportunities for our students. With their help, we are also pleased to meet OICRs employment needs which is proven with the hiring of more than 18 Fleming College graduates to fill their high-tech positions.”

The in-kind donation would have not been possible without the tireless effort of OICR and Illumina, the sequencer manufacturer and third party liquid handler software provider. The College would like to specifically recognize and thank everyone at OICR who made these donations possible (Lee Timms, Jessica Miller, Paul Krzyzanowski, Tom Hudson, Mike Kostiuk, Susan Hockley, Jeremy Johns, and Howard Simkevitz) and the staff at Illumina for their tireless help and expertise in setting up the equipment (Lisa Lock, Peter Ayache and Mike Ramsey).

OICR, a global leader in healthcare, research and innovation, is dedicated to exploring the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Their commitment to exploring cancer extends beyond the lab; OICR invests in people who can make novel discoveries.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Fleming Ties magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of Fleming College. The original can be found here (PDF): https://flemingcollege.ca/PDF/FlemingTies/fleming-ties-spring-2017.pdf

May 3, 2017

Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients


A technician holds a blood sample and writes down information.

The advent of genomic sequencing and targeted therapies has opened the door to new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer. The Ontario-wide Cancer Targeted Nucleic Acid Evaluation (OCTANE) program is a new, province-wide initiative supported by OICR that will allow more patients to benefit from these innovations while also helping to advance cancer research in Ontario.

Continue reading – Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients

April 13, 2017

Could diagnosing cancer as rare diseases improve outcomes for patients?

Dr. John Bartlett

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer amongst women in Canada and worldwide, but despite its prevalence, a group of researchers believes that it should often be treated as a rare disease. Doing so would change clinical approaches and improve treatment for patients.

Continue reading – Could diagnosing cancer as rare diseases improve outcomes for patients?

April 4, 2017

OICR provides students a window into possible careers over March Break

Three students pose for a photo.

For three science-obsessed high school students March Break wasn’t a time to kick back and relax. Instead the students, Cameron, Chris and Zev, spent the week at OICR gaining knowledge and hands on experience in genomics and bioinformatics as part of the Gene Researcher for a Week program.

Continue reading – OICR provides students a window into possible careers over March Break

March 29, 2017

New approach improves sensitivity of DNA sequencing, producing more reliable results

A lab technician works at a bench

Polymerase chain reactions (PCR) are one of the most common tools used in molecular biology labs worldwide. This technique allows researchers to amplify, or increase, the amount of DNA in a sample so that they have more to work with. To keep track of the original molecules from a sample, chemical ‘barcodes’ are added. While barcodes serve an important purpose they can lead to errors and interfere with results. To prevent these cross-reactions a small team of international researchers have devised an ingenious method to ‘hide’ the barcodes when needed, leading to increased sensitivity and more reliable results.
Continue reading – New approach improves sensitivity of DNA sequencing, producing more reliable results

March 16, 2017

Researchers discover new test that could change the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer

Dr. Paul Boutros

Genetic tests are being used more commonly in the diagnosis of many types of cancer. However, there currently isn’t a highly accurate test that can identify men with aggressive forms of prostate cancer, making it more difficult to choose the most appropriate course of treatment.

Continue reading – Researchers discover new test that could change the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer

March 9, 2017

Innovative technique greatly increases sensitivity of DNA sequencing

Dr. Paul Krzyzanowski

New molecular barcode technology reduces error rate in genomic sequencing to 1 in 10,000

Toronto (March 9, 2017) – Researchers at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), together with international collaborators, have invented a technique to avoid a major problem with common laboratory techniques and improve the sensitivity of important cancer tests.

Continue reading – Innovative technique greatly increases sensitivity of DNA sequencing

February 23, 2017

New Gene Sequencing Software Could Aid in Early Detection, Treatment of Cancer

A closeup of the nanopore sequencing device

Digital Detection Tool Will Be Shared Freely Over the Web

Toronto, ON and Baltimore, MD (February 23, 2017) A research team from the United States and Canada has developed and successfully tested new computational software that determines whether a human DNA sample includes an epigenetic add-on linked to cancer and other adverse health conditions.

Continue reading – New Gene Sequencing Software Could Aid in Early Detection, Treatment of Cancer

February 13, 2017

International collaboration cooks up powerful new software: MISO

LIMS system

Keeping track of samples and organizing their associated data is a crucial part of the research process. Like many labs around the world, those at OICR were using a commercially available Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) to perform this task. However, the researchers using it found that this tool placed far too many constraints on their work. So what did they do? They built their own in partnership with the Earlham Institute (EI) in the U.K. This collaboration has resulted in powerful, flexible and open source software called MISO (Managing Information for Sequencing Operations).

Continue reading – International collaboration cooks up powerful new software: MISO

February 9, 2017

ICGCmed will provide wealth of vital new information to scientists

ICGCmed - Image from white paper

The ability to sequence and study the human genome and the genomes of different cancer types has allowed scientists to increase our understanding of the biology of these diseases. In turn this has helped to create new preventative strategies, diagnostic and prognostic tools as well as better treatments. But what if there was a way to make this information even more useful? An international group is working to establish a project that will do just that.

Continue reading – ICGCmed will provide wealth of vital new information to scientists

January 13, 2017

Decoding the beaver genome

Jared Simpson

What does a beaver’s genome look like? And how can understanding the beaver genome help us to improve human health? A group of Canadian researchers led by Drs. Stephen Scherer and Si Lok at The Centre for Applied Genomics and The Hospital for Sick Children today published the sequenced genome of the Canadian beaver in order to answer these questions and others (and just in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary, no less).

Dr. Jared Simpson led a team at OICR who provided their bioinformatics expertise on the project. We spoke to Simpson about his team’s role in the study and how their findings could contribute to a better understanding of cancer.

Continue reading – Decoding the beaver genome