Discoveries, translation, and clinical impact


Cancer is an old disease, first documented thousands of years ago. It currently strikes approximately 11 million people a year around the world and each year about seven million people die of the disease. The challenge to find the cause and develop preventive measures and effective treatments for cancer is daunting.

OICR was launched by the Government of Ontario in December 2005 to tackle the big questions in cancer research. Since its inception, the Institute has forged multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams to tackle the incidence, diagnosis, management, morbidity and mortality of cancer.

The Institute's research strategy builds on the strengths in the Ontario cancer research community and aims at enhancing its capability. OICR created a blueprint for its research activities from 2007-2010, which identified the themes of OICR's research – prevention, early diagnosis, cancer targets and therapeutics – and inaugurated the programs and platforms that would enable OICR to achieve its goals. New platforms in transformative pathology and genetic epidemiology have been launched this year.

In its first five years, OICR focused on creating or enhancing existing infrastructure, recruiting outstanding scientists, and launching new programs and technology platforms to establish the foundation necessary to fulfil its translational research and commercialization missions.

Partnerships and collaboration have played a large role in advancing the Institute's research. They include the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, Cancer Care Ontario, GE Healthcare, MaRS Innovation, Pfizer Global and the Terry Fox Research Institute.

The largest international collaboration has been the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), co-founded by Dr. Tom Hudson, OICR's President and Scientific Director. Launched in 2008, it will sequence the genes of 50 different cancer tumour types. OICR houses the Data Coordination Centre for the Consortium, which links to worldwide data and makes it available in a single secure location, conducts quality assessment, provides data curation services and manages data releases. The projects conducted by Consortium members are expected to produce 25,000 times the amount of data generated by the Human Genome Project. OICR also hosts the ICGC Secretariat, which manages its networking activities.

The High Impact Clinical Trial (HICT) program, a joint program of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and Cancer Care Ontario, is designed to support hypothesis-driven translational research in clinical trials and facilitate the evaluation of personalized medicine strategies and interventions. Through integrative, multi-disciplinary Translational Research Teams, the HICT program engages academic clinical trial investigators throughout Ontario to support studies involving experimental therapeutics, bio-specimen-based diagnostics and biomarker evaluations.

Last year, OICR released its second Strategic Plan outlining the Institute's four main objectives for 2010 to 2015. These are:

  1. Facilitate the adoption of more personalized medicine for cancer.
  2. Seek solutions to critical issues that could benefit patients in the next five years.
  3. Enhance and facilitate the digitization and interpretation of cancer data.
  4. Accelerate OICR's Patents to Products (Commercialization) Program.

OICR's six innovation programs are each structured as a province-wide, often international, collaboration with central leadership by a principal investigator accountable to OICR's President and Scientific Director. The six technology platforms are similarly organized with teams and leaders focused on advancing technology as well as providing the highest quality, cutting-edge infrastructure. One of OICR's greatest strengths is bridging the gap between discoveries and patients. The three translation programs will ensure the movement of promising technologies to practical applications in the clinic and marketplace and realize economic benefits for Ontario.

In formulating OICR's Strategic Plan for 2010-2015, OICR's scientific leaders identified five clinical challenges of high priority for cancer patients, physicians and public health. OICR's goal is to make an impact in these areas in five years.

1. Pancreatic cancer. The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only five per cent. It is usually diagnosed too late when surgery is not possible and it does not respond well to treatment. OICR is leading a large-scale analysis of the genome of pancreatic cancer as a member of the ICGC and is supporting the creation of the new cell lines and mouse xenograft models needed to screen for and test potential new drugs.

2. Prostate cancer. Extensive PSA testing has resulted in over-diagnosis of prostate cancer. Since treatment involves life-altering risks, there is a need for screening and surveillance methods that allow for better characterization of the prognosis and to determine the best treatment strategy. OICR is working with Prostate Cancer Canada and Cancer Research UK to identify biomarkers that can be used to develop better tools. In collaboration with three Ontario institutions, OICR is launching a study to optimize selection of patients for active surveillance by using a new imaging/biopsy approach.

3. Early stage breast cancer. No reliable method currently exists to identify aggressive breast cancers. Current pathology tools do not provide sufficient information with which to make treatment decisions. OICR is working with breast cancer biologists and imaging probe developers to improve diagnosis. The Institute is also supporting development of improved quantitative pathology to validate new biomarker-based imaging techniques.

4. Population-based screening programs for colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is the second most frequent cause of cancer death in Canada yet most patients can be cured if the tumour is found early. OICR is partnering with Cancer Care Ontario on programs to increase screening rates. The Institute is studying the genetic and environmental causes of the disease and new imaging methods for earlier and more accurate detection.

5. Long-term adverse effects affecting children and young adults. While cancer is sometimes thought of as a disease primarily affecting the elderly, 10,000 children and young adults will be diagnosed with the disease this year. There are long-term health consequences for these patients. OICR pharmaco-vigilance research is examining the long-term effects of cancer therapy and the impact of follow-up.

OICR Blueprint figure