February 25, 2020

Study shows common cell protein could be targeted to treat childhood brain cancers

Researchers discover that childhood brain cancer could be treated by blocking key cell-surface protein, pointing to a potential treatment approach with fewer toxic side effects

Michelle Francisco, first author, and Dr. Xi Huang, senior author

Chemotherapy for children with brain cancer is often toxic, leaving patients with serious life-long side effects but OICR-funded researchers have uncovered a new approach that may help.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the Ontario-based research team discovered that blocking a specific protein on the surface of brain cancer cells can suppress the rampant growth of a tumour without harming the development of the brain.

The study focused on the protein CLIC1 in medulloblastoma, the most common type of childhood brain cancer. The group found that disrupting CLIC1 can halt medulloblastoma growth with very little effect on the developing brain in mice.

“Brain cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in children and young adults,” says Dr. Xi Huang, Scientist in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and senior author of the study. “We need new treatments to help these patients.”

We believe our findings are significant because ion channels have been successfully targeted to treat numerous human diseases.

Michelle Francisco

CLIC1 belongs to a class of proteins called ion channels, which are important in the development of several other diseases like diabetes, epilepsy and high blood pressure. Many existing drugs and compounds act as ion channel modulators. The Huang Lab now has the high-throughput screening equipment to assess thousands of drug-like chemicals for those that can best block these ion channels.

“We believe our findings are significant because ion channels have been successfully targeted to treat numerous human diseases,” says Michelle Francisco, Research Project Coordinator in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Program at SickKids and first author of the study. “This helps pave the way between this discovery today and the impact it can have in the clinic.”

These findings build on Huang’s previous research on the potassium channel EAG2, which – like CLIC1 – is critical to medulloblastoma growth. In partnership with collaborators, Huang has shown that EAG2 could be blocked with an FDA-approved drug for schizophrenia to treat medulloblastoma in experimental mouse models and in a small patient study.

“We are fortunate to work with world-leading brain cancer researchers in Ontario,” Huang says, “We look forward to continuing our research to find new solutions for this devastating disease by targeting ion channels.”

This research was funded by OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative, SickKids Foundation, Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre, Garron Family Cancer Centre, b.r.a.i.n.child, Meagan’s Walk, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program Career Development Award, Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grants, and Sontag Foundation Distinguished Scientist Award to Xi Huang.

Read more about OICR’s brain cancer research.

October 9, 2019

Researchers discover a new cancer-driving mutation in the “dark matter” of the cancer genome

Change in just one letter of DNA code in a gene conserved through generations of evolution can cause multiple types of cancer

Toronto – (October 9, 2019) An Ontario-led research group has discovered a novel cancer-driving mutation in the vast non-coding regions of the human cancer genome, also known as the “dark matter” of human cancer DNA.

The mutation, as described in two related studies published in Nature on October 9, 2019, represents a new potential therapeutic target for several types of cancer including brain, liver and blood cancer. This target could be used to develop novel treatments for patients with these difficult-to-treat diseases.

“Non-coding DNA, which makes up 98 per cent of the genome, is notoriously difficult to study and is often overlooked since it does not code for proteins,” says Dr. Lincoln Stein, co-lead of the studies and Head of Adaptive Oncology at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). “By carefully analyzing these regions, we have discovered a change in one letter of the DNA code that can drive multiple types of cancer. In turn, we’ve found a new cancer mechanism that we can target to tackle the disease.”

Continue reading – Researchers discover a new cancer-driving mutation in the “dark matter” of the cancer genome

September 3, 2019

OICR welcomes new investigator, Dr. Parisa Shooshtari

Dr. Parisa Shooshtari, OICR Investigator and Assistant Professor in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University
Dr. Parisa Shooshtari, OICR Investigator and Assistant Professor in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University.

OICR is proud to welcome Dr. Parisa Shooshtari as an OICR Investigator.

Shooshtari specializes in developing computational, statistical and machine learning methods to understand the biological mechanisms underlying complex diseases, like cancer and autoimmune conditions. She is interested in uncovering how genes are dysregulated in complex diseases by integrating multiple data types and applying machine learning methods to analyze single-sell sequencing data.

Of her many achievements, Shooshtari developed a computational pipeline to uniformly process more than 800 epigenomic data samples from different international consortia. She then built and led a team that developed a web-interface and an interactive genome-browser to make the database publicly available to download and explore.

Shooshtari joins the OICR community with research experience from Yale University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She also served as a Research Associate with the Centre for Computational Medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids).

Shooshtari recently became an Assistant Professor in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University, where she officially began her career as an independent researcher. Here, Shooshtari discusses her commitment to collaboration and her transition to professorship.

Your work spans multiple disease areas from autoimmune diseases to cancer, what do these diseases have in common? Is there a specific disease that you’re more interested in?

My work focuses on complex diseases, where instead of one gene causing the disease, there are sometimes tens or hundreds of genes working together to give rise to an ailment.

When it comes to complex diseases, we also know that there are multiple factors that we need to consider, including genetics, epigenetics and environmental factors. We live in an era where we have rich datasets with many different types of data. Each of these data types sheds light upon a different aspect of the disease mechanism, but we need to integrate these data types to gain a comprehensive understanding of how a complex disease works.

I develop computational methods for integrative analysis, so complex diseases are definitely the most interesting to me. I feel lucky to be a researcher at this time when I can help bring these data types together to understand mechanisms of diseases, which in turn will help inform treatment selection or help find new therapeutic strategies.

I am interested in applying our data integration methods to several complex diseases but I am currently working with a few Canadian groups to help better understand Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) – a type of fatal childhood brain cancer.

Your current collaborators include researchers from Yale, Harvard, MIT, SickKids and other leading organizations. How did you initiate and sustain these collaborations?

At the beginning of my research career, I would reach out to scientists who were working on interesting, challenging and cutting-edge problems. I enjoy working in collaborative environments because I believe the key to success in biomedical research is through collaborations between researchers from diverse backgrounds.

With the support of my collaborators, I’ve been able to learn and shift my focus from theoretical computational sciences to applications of data science in genetics of complex diseases. Now, sometimes collaborators approach me with their rich data, which I’m eager to help analyze.

With your new appointment, what are you looking forward to over the next few years?

I am eager to continue expanding my research program and working with new scientists on exciting cutting-edge problems in genetics and epigenetics of complex diseases. New technologies have revolutionized how we study diseases, and we are transitioning to a point where these new technologies are revolutionizing how we treat diseases. I am confident that we will have better ways of treating these diseases in the future using personalized medicine, and I want to help make that a reality.

Visit Dr. Shooshtari’s OICR website page

May 1, 2019

The unanticipated early origins of childhood brain cancer

Study identifies earliest traces of brain cancer long before the disease becomes symptomatic

Toronto (May 1, 2019) – Brain tumours are the leading cause of non-accidental death in children in Canada, but little is known about when these tumours form or how they develop. Researchers have recently identified the cells that are thought to give rise to certain brain tumours in children and discovered that these cells first appear in the embryonic stage of a mammal’s development – far earlier than they had expected.

Their findings, published today in Nature, could lead the way to the discovery of better treatments to attack these lethal tumours.

“Progress in the development of more effective brain cancer treatments has been hampered in large part by the complex heterogeneity – or the variety of cells – within each tumour,” says Dr. Michael Taylor, Paediatric Neurosurgeon and Senior Scientist in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and co-lead of the study. “We recognized that new technologies could allow us to unravel some of this complexity, so we combined our expertise with McGill and OICR to approach this problem together.”

Using mouse models, the research group investigated the different types of normal brain cells and how they developed at various timepoints in the cerebellum of the brain – the most common location for childhood brain tumours to appear. They mapped the lineages of over 30 types of cells and identified normal cells that would later transform into cancerous cells, also known as the cells of origin.

To pinpoint these specific cells, the group relied on single cell sequencing technology, which allows researchers to look at individual cells more clearly than traditional sequencing methods.

In their investigation, the cells of origin were observed much earlier in fetal development than one would expect, says Taylor, who is also a Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Toronto and Co-lead of OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative.

“Our data show that in some cases, these tumours arise from cell populations and events that would occur in humans at six weeks in utero,” says Dr. Lincoln Stein, Head of Adaptive Oncology at OICR and co-lead of the study. “This means that the brain tumours may be starting long before they show in clinic, even before a woman may know she is pregnant.”

“The brain is extraordinarily complex. These findings are not only important for better understanding brain tumours but they will also allow us to learn more about these cells and how they work, in order to help children with neurodevelopmental delays. What we have accomplished as a team in this study brings hope for patients,” adds Dr. Nada Jabado, Paediatric Hemato-Oncologist and Senior Scientist in the Child Health and Human Development Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and co-lead of the study. Dr. Jabado is also a professor of Pediatrics and Human genetics at McGill University.

“If we can understand where these tumours originate, we can better understand which cells to target and when to target them to create more effective and less toxic therapies for children,” says Ibrahim El-Hamamy, PhD candidate at OICR and co-first author of the study. “We’ve found new avenues and opportunities in a very complex disease and we look forward to actualizing this potential.” 

With this knowledge, researchers can now study the differences between the development of normal, healthy cells and the cells that will eventually give rise to cancerous cells.

Continue reading – The unanticipated early origins of childhood brain cancer

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

December 4, 2017

OICR launches groundbreaking Cancer Therapeutics Innovation Pipeline to drive cutting-edge therapies to the clinic

Ten new projects were selected in the pipeline’s inaugural funding round, highlighting Ontario’s strengths in collaboration and drug discovery.

Toronto (December 4, 2017) – The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) today announced the Cancer Therapeutics Innovation Pipeline (CTIP) initiative and the first 10 projects selected in CTIP’s inaugural round of funding. CTIP aims to support the local translation of Ontario discoveries into therapies with the potential for improving the lives of cancer patients. The funding will create a new pipeline of promising drugs in development, and attract the partnerships and investment to the province necessary for further clinical development and testing.

“Ontario congratulates OICR on this innovative approach to driving the development of new cancer therapies,” says Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science. “The Cancer Therapeutics Innovation Pipeline will help ensure that promising discoveries get the support they need to move from lab bench to commercialization, and get to patients faster.”

Continue reading – OICR launches groundbreaking Cancer Therapeutics Innovation Pipeline to drive cutting-edge therapies to the clinic

October 23, 2017

Pathology Matters 2017 unites and informs Ontario’s pathology community

Pathology Matters attendees take part in a group discussion.

In this post, Monique Johnson shares how the Ontario Molecular Pathology Research Network’s (OMPRN) 2017 Pathology Matters Meeting provided her with new insights into the field and introduced her to Ontario’s molecular pathology community.

Continue reading – Pathology Matters 2017 unites and informs Ontario’s pathology community

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

August 30, 2017

Tracking glioblastoma as it develops

Dr. Peter Dirks

An international team of scientists have used an innovative barcode-like system to track the behaviour of individual glioblastoma cells, allowing them to see how the cells of this deadly form of brain cancer have successfully evaded treatment and how they spread.

Continue reading – Tracking glioblastoma as it develops

July 11, 2017

New research group aims to exploit genomic differences within brain cancer to develop new treatments

Drs. Taylor and Dirks

This year, almost 3,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with brain cancer – one of the hardest forms of cancer to treat. In May, OICR launched its Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative (TRI) to leverage recent insights into the genomic heterogeneity in two common types of brain cancer – Medulloblastoma (MB) and Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM). Developing a better understanding of the genes and pathways central to MB and GBM will enable the development of new drugs and provide a much needed improvement in treatment options for patients, many of whom are children and young adults and are particularly susceptible to long-term side effects from treatment.

Continue reading – New research group aims to exploit genomic differences within brain cancer to develop new treatments

May 25, 2017

OICR launches five all-star teams of Ontario scientists to tackle some of the deadliest forms of cancer

People from the press conference

Great strides have been made in cancer research, but much work remains to develop better treatments for the most lethal cancers and to advance new anti-cancer technologies. OICR is taking on a new approach, building on the success of the Institute’s first ten years and Ontario’s strength in particular cancer research areas. Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science announced that the Institute is funding five collaborative, cross-disciplinary and inter-institutional Translational Research Initiatives (TRIs) with a total of $24 million over the next two years.

The TRIs will bring together some of the top cancer researchers in Ontario and be led by internationally renowned Ontario scientists. Each team will focus on a certain type of cancer or therapeutic technology. To maximize the positive impact of research on patients, the TRIs all incorporate clinical trials into their design. The TRIs, which were selected by an International Scientific Review Panel, are:

The funding will also support Early Prostate Cancer Developmental Projects led by Drs. Paul Boutros and George Rodriguez.

“In just over 10 years, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research has become a global centre of excellence that is moving the province to the forefront of discovery and innovation in cancer research. It is home to outstanding Ontario scientists, who are working together to ease the burden of cancer in our province and around the world,” said Moridi.

“Collaboration and translational research are key to seeing that the innovative technologies being developed in Ontario reach the clinic and help patients,” said Mr. Peter Goodhand, President of OICR. “These TRIs represent a unique and significant opportunity to impact clinical cancer care in the province.”

Read the news release: OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

May 25, 2017

OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

Minister for Research, Innovation and Science

Toronto (May 25, 2017) – Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, today announced the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research is launching five unique, cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional Translational Research Initiatives (TRIs), each focused on a single type of or treatment approach to cancer. With $24 million in funding over two years, the TRIs will bring together world-leading scientists to tackle some of the most difficult to treat cancers and test innovative solutions to some of the most serious challenges in cancer today.

The TRIs build on Ontario’s proven strengths in areas such as stem cells, immuno-oncology, pediatric cancers, genomics, clinical trials and informatics. Working together, the province’s top scientists and clinicians will accelerate the development of much needed solutions for patients around the globe, with a focus on acute leukemia and brain, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Each TRI includes clinical trials to maximize patient impact.

Continue reading – OICR launches five large-scale Ontario research initiatives to combat some of the most deadly cancers

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