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Cancer researchers focused on bringing new discoveries to patients get two-year funding awards
OICR is supporting six research teams through its Innovation to Implementation (I2I) funding competition.

OICR is supporting six research teams through its Innovation to Implementation (I2I) funding competition.

June 14, 2023, TORONTO – Funding announced today by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) will help six Ontario-based research teams pursue their ultimate goal of improving the lives of people with cancer.

Funding comes through OICR’s Innovation to Implementation (I2I) program, which aims to help ensure new discoveries about preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer are adopted into healthcare policy and clinical practice.

“Every cancer researcher wants their work to have an impact on patients, but there are a lot of challenges that must be overcome before a promising idea in the lab can have a meaningful impact in the clinic,” says Dr. Christine Williams, OICR’s Executive Vice President and Head of Implementation Science. “That’s why OICR is proud to support these talented Ontario researchers bring potentially life-changing innovations to the people who need them.”

“It’s very exciting to see OICR fund these projects,” says Carol Gordon, a member of OICR’s Patient and Family Advisory Council who helped review I2I applications. “They all address important topics from a patient’s perspective, including personalized medicine, accessible genetic testing, quality of life and patient engagement.”

First launched in 2022, I2I awards support the uptake of new cancer tools and knowledge for the benefit of cancer patients. The awards are part of OICR’s Implementation Science program, which emphasizes ways to assess, test and implement research discoveries into Ontario’s healthcare system.

“The Ontario government is committed to advancing new discoveries in cancer research by supporting entrepreneurs who have developed innovative technologies, treatments and tools to help cancer patients,” said Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “These six projects all have the potential to improve cancer patients’ lives, by providing personalized care and treatments, and by making genetic testing faster and more accessible to all Ontarians.”

The six research projects funded as part of the 2023 I2I awards will receive up to a total of $200,000 each over the next two years. They include investigations into new tools to diagnose cancer, new approaches to evaluate emerging cancer technologies and ways to ensure all communities have access to new discoveries.

Dr. David Berman of Queen’s University created a system to objectively grade bladder cancer so that it can be treated more effectively. ‘High-grade’ and ‘low-grade’ bladder cancers are treated very differently, but the process to determine grading is highly subjective. Expert pathologists will disagree on cancer grades in 20 to 40 per cent of cases. With I2I funding, Berman and colleagues will test a computer-aided grading system for bladder cancer based on quantitative measures and work with industry, academic and patient partners to help it make it available to clinicians.

“Having an objective, quantitative way to grade bladder cancers will help urologists provide personalized care matched to their patients’ individual risks.” – Dr. David Berman

Dr. Anthony Nichols of Lawson Health Research Institute and London Health Sciences Centre is developing a molecular test to predict how patients with HPV-related head and neck cancers, the fastest rising cancers in North America, will respond to treatment. Standard treatment for these cancers is high doses of chemotherapy and radiation, which carry significant side effects, so it’s important to know which patients will benefit from treatment and which patients could be spared unnecessary side effects. Nichols and colleagues will use their I2I award to confirm that their test is accurate and explore how it could be integrated into clinical care.

“With head and neck cancers on the rise, it’s more important than ever to know which therapies work for which patients, so they can get the best chance of survival with the least amount of side effects.” – Dr. Anthony Nichols

Dr. Rola Saleeb of St. Michael’s Hospital, a site of Unity Health Toronto, is exploring the use of a new tool to standardize genetic testing for glioma, the most common type of brain cancer. This technology uses a more affordable DNA sequencing technology and could make genetic testing more accessible. Existing genetic tests are done using large, expensive equipment that isn’t available in all laboratories, meaning tests are often sent away to other labs and patients must wait weeks for results before they can begin treatment. OICR funding will allow Saleeb and colleagues to develop a single test that looks for all relevant glioma biomarkers and runs on the nanopore sequencing platform, which costs only about $1,000 and can fit on a desktop.

We want to help bring molecular testing into every laboratory so that clinicians everywhere have the information they need to set their patients on the right course of treatment.” ­­– Dr. Rola Saleeb

Dr. Yvonne Bombard of the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital, a site of Unity Health Toronto, is investigating how to make genetic services for cancer more equitable for all people across Ontario. Genetic testing can help identify people at high risk of developing cancer so they can be screened earlier and treated more effectively should cancer develop. But racialized communities have a more difficult time accessing genetic services and getting a definitive diagnosis, in part because most genetic research is done on people of European ancestry but also because of the barriers built into our healthcare system. With funding from OICR, Bombard and colleagues will interview people from diverse backgrounds as well as genomics researchers, healthcare providers and other stakeholders to identify barriers to accessing genetic services and work together with racialized communities on strategies to overcome them.

“Cancer genetic services can’t reach their full potential until they reach everyone; we are hoping to understand the barriers that currently prevent racialized communities from accessing them. This is an important first step to mitigating these barriers and improving care and health outcomes for all Ontarians.” – Dr. Yvonne Bombard

Dr. Kelvin Chan of Sunnybrook Research Institute is studying the impact of CAR-T cell therapy on quality of life for patients with lymphoma. CAR-T cell therapy shows a lot of promise in treating blood cancers like lymphoma and works by training the body’s immune cells to find and kill cancer. But it is very costly to manufacture and administer, making it difficult for regulators to measure its cost-effectiveness and manage access. In their I2I study, Chan and colleagues will ask lymphoma patients about their quality of life before and after undergoing CAR-T cell therapy so that their experiences can be factored into policy decisions surrounding this potentially life-changing new treatment.

“To fully understand the impact of CAR-T cell therapy, and the potential impact of public reimbursement for it, we need to understand how it affected the lives of the people who have first-hand experience with it.”  – Dr. Kelvin Chan

Dr. Kednapa Thavorn of The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa is exploring how patient voices can improve economic evaluation – an important part of how health systems assess the value of new technologies. In an earlier OICR-funded study, Thavorn and colleagues invited patients and caregivers to provide input on the financial benefits and burdens of CAR T-cell therapy, a groundbreaking immunotherapy that has delivered promising results for people with blood cancers. This new I2I study will engage a broader range of stakeholders, including patients, researchers and policymakers, to identify barriers that prevent patient engagement in economic evaluations and recommend ways to involve patients more meaningfully.

“Patients know the true costs of having cancer and of undergoing cancer treatment, and therefore should be involved in any discussion about the economic value of a new treatment.” – Dr. Kednapa Thavorn

These projects will build on and inform many other OICR initiatives, including a made-in-Canada approach to CAR-T cell therapy, and a platform to track hereditary cancers in Ontario and unify genetic testing. Altogether, they underscore OICR’s commitment to developing powerful and cost-effective solutions that improve the lives of people affected by cancer.

The views expressed are those of OICR and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Province of Ontario.