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

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 3, 2019

Five fellows, four labs, three years, two countries, and a generous donation

Joesph Lebovic and the fellows


The Lebovic Fellowship program connects scientists in Israel and Ontario, leading to the validation of a new drug candidate for leukemia and the optimization of a new potential cancer vaccine

Three years ago, the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC) received a donation from Joseph and Wolf Lebovic – two brothers who are Holocaust survivors, Canadian immigrants, avid philanthropists and recently-appointed Members of the Order of Canada. Their vision was to strengthen collaboration between the outstanding researchers in Israel and those in Ontario to accelerate cancer research.

They created the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Fellowship Program, which paired together laboratories specializing in complementary subjects. The Program’s first round of projects officially came to a successful close today and here we recognize the progress made thanks to the generous donation of the Lebovic brothers.

Developing a drug for leukemia

Israel lead researcher: Dr. Yinon Ben-Neriah, IMRIC
Israel fellows: Waleed Minzel and Eric Hung, PhD Candidates, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Ontario lead researcher: Dr. John Dick, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (PMCC)
Ontario fellow: Dr. Laura Garcia-Prat, Postdoctoral Fellow, PMCC

Ben-Neriah’s lab in Israel had developed a new compound and showed it may be a valuable anti-leukemia drug, but they couldn’t explain why the drug was only effective in animal models that had strong immune systems. Understanding the relationship between the drug and the immune system would allow them to validate which leukemia subtypes would respond to their therapeutic approach.

John Dick’s lab had developed the gold standard for evaluating the efficacy of leukemia drugs in animal models using sophisticated patient-derived xenograft mouse models. Through this fellowship, the Ben-Neriah Lab teamed up with the Dick lab to learn from their expertise and gain insights into their experimental models.

Continue reading – Five fellows, four labs, three years, two countries, and a generous donation

May 17, 2018

Combination of erectile dysfunction drugs and flu vaccine may help kill remaining cancer after surgery

A flu vaccine sits on top of packages of erectile dysfunction drugs

A remarkable study led by Dr. Rebecca Auer from The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) shows that the unlikely combination of erectile dysfunction drugs and the flu vaccine may boost the immune system’s ability to clean up cancer cells left behind after surgery. This method demonstrated promising results in a mouse model, where it reduced the spread of cancer following surgery by 90 per cent. Now the approach will be tested in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial involving 24 patients at TOH.

Continue reading – Combination of erectile dysfunction drugs and flu vaccine may help kill remaining cancer after surgery

January 19, 2018

Scientists create method to sensitize triple-negative breast cancer to common immunotherapy

Drs. Marie-Claude Bourgeois-Daigneault and John Bell

Immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells, has shown remarkable promise in treating many types of cancer. Now researchers have found a way to use immunotherapy against triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), one of the most lethal forms of breast cancer. Previously, TNBC was resistant to immune checkpoint inhibitors, a common class of immunotherapies. Using a new strategy, the scientists achieved a cure rate of up to 90 per cent in mouse models.

Continue reading – Scientists create method to sensitize triple-negative breast cancer to common immunotherapy

January 4, 2018

Study shows virus-boosted immunotherapy can be effective against aggressive breast cancer

The Maraba virus is seen under an electron microscope

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa have found that a combination of two immunotherapies – oncolytic viruses and checkpoint inhibitors – was successful in treating triple-negative breast cancer in mouse models. Triple-negative breast cancer is the most aggressive and hard-to-treat form of the disease.

Continue reading – Study shows virus-boosted immunotherapy can be effective against aggressive breast cancer

October 11, 2017

Ontario start-up makes major deal to develop cancer-fighting viruses

Partners congratulate Turnstone Biologics

Canadian academic institutions and research organizations are congratulating Turnstone Biologics on a new partnership with AbbVie to develop cancer-fighting viruses (also called oncolytic viral immunotherapies).

Turnstone was founded in Ottawa based on research led by Dr. John Bell (from The Ottawa Hospital and uOttawa), Dr. Brian Lichty (from McMaster University) and Dr. David Stojdl (from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and uOttawa). The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and BioCanRx have also played a key role in advancing the technology.

Quick Facts and Links

  • Turnstone was recently recognized as one of the top 15 biotech start-ups in the world.
  • In 2016, Turnstone secured US$41 million in venture capital (VC) funding. This is believed to be the largest VC deal in Ottawa since 2013 and the second largest biotech VC deal in Canada in 2016.
  • As of October 2017, Turnstone had 25 employees in Ottawa, Hamilton and New York. It expects to approximately double its employees by the end of next year.
  • Turnstone’s most advanced product is called Ad-MG1-MAGEA3. It is produced in The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre and the McMaster Immunology Research Centre.
  • Top journal Science called cancer immunotherapy the “breakthrough of the year” in 2013.
  • Ad-MG1-MAGEA3 is currently being tested in clinical trials at several hospitals across Canada. People who are interested in participating in these trials can read these frequently asked questions.
  • While public funding is crucial for cancer research discoveries, private investment is almost always necessary to advance the development of new therapies, as this can cost more than US$2.5 billion.
  • Turnstone was co-founded by FACIT, The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research’s commercialization partner, which provided initial management, seed financing, intellectual property consolidation and hiring of initial employees including the CEO.
  • Numerous organizations have supported the research team, including the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, Angels of Hope, BioCanRx, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CHEO Foundation, Hair Donation Ottawa, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and the Terry Fox Research Institute.

Continue reading – Ontario start-up makes major deal to develop cancer-fighting viruses

July 11, 2017

How OICR is helping to boost the body’s ability to fight cancer

Oncology Viruses - Image of a cell.

The body’s immune system is incredibly powerful. Its ability to detect and destroy various pathogens makes it central to maintaining good health. While we all know the role it plays in fighting the common cold or flu, many do not know that it has recently been enlisted by scientists in the fight against cancer. Researchers in a field known as immuno-oncology are working to find ways to turn on the body’s defences to locate and destroy tumour cells. OICR recently established a team of expert scientists and clinicians to develop and test new immunotherapies to help patients.

Continue reading – How OICR is helping to boost the body’s ability to fight cancer

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

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 26, 2017

Clinical trial opens for promising combination therapy

Rhabdovirus

The first patient has been treated in what has been named the Sandpiper Trial. The Phase I/II clinical trial will evaluate a therapy that combines a novel oncolytic viral immunotherapy agent called MG1-MAGEA3 with pembrolizumab, which is an approved checkpoint inhibitor. The Sandpiper Trial will study the use of this combination therapy in patients with non-small cell lung cancer who are no longer responding to chemotherapy.

Continue reading – Clinical trial opens for promising combination therapy

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