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OICR-led teams receive historic multimillion dollar funding to tackle hard-to-treat cancers
The 2023 Breakthrough Team Grants from the Canadian Cancer Society comprise one of the country’s largest ever initiatives against six low-survival cancers.
Drs. Steven Gallinger and Trevor Pugh.

The 2023 Breakthrough Team Grants from the Canadian Cancer Society comprise one of the country’s largest ever initiatives against six low-survival cancers.

Two OICR-led research teams seeking to improve outcomes for six of the deadliest cancers in Canada are receiving $7.5 million apiece over five years from the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

The teams were awarded CCS Breakthrough Team Grants, which fund research that brings together scientific, clinical and patient expertise to tackle cancers of the pancreas, esophagus, brain, lung, liver and stomach. These cancers have five-year survival rates of less than 30 per cent and are estimated to account for more than 40 per cent of all cancer deaths in Canada.

“Our goal is to support breakthroughs so fewer people die from these cancers and so that those living with or beyond them experience an improved quality of life,” Dr. Stuart Edmonds, Executive Vice-President of Mission, Research and Advocacy at CCS, said in a news release.

In total, 10 research teams comprising 230 individuals will receive more than $55 million, making it one of Canada’s largest ever efforts to improve outcomes for these low-survival cancers. The Breakthrough Team Grant program is delivered in partnership with Brain Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Cancer Research Society and the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation. 

Though they take different approaches, both OICR-led projects emphasize the importance of early detection and the potential of simple blood tests – known as ‘liquid biopsies’ – in cancer screening.

The project will build on years of OICR research into pancreatic cancer – an aggressive and hard-to-treat cancer – by focusing on early detection, personalized treatments strategies and stronger infrastructure for clinical trials. Researchers will collect and analyze blood samples to see if liquid biopsies can be used to detect pancreatic cancer earlier, test tumour samples for genetic variants and use the results to match patients to targeted treatments, study the cells surrounding the tumour (known as the ‘tumour microenvironment’) to understand their interaction with the immune system, and facilitate more clinical trials for pancreatic cancer so that more patients have access.

The project team comprises seven principal investigators (PI), including OICR investigators Dr. Faiyaz Notta and Dr. Hartland Jackson, with researchers across 11 organizations from Ontario and British Columbia.

Cancer screening is especially important for people with inherited genetic variants, known as familial cancer syndromes (FCS), that put them at higher risk of developing cancer. Through the cfDNA in Hereditary And High-Risk Malignancies (CHARM) Consortium, Pugh and colleagues have already shown that a simple blood test that looks for cell-free DNA (cfDNA) can be used to detect cancer early in people with FCS. Now they will run a randomized control trial focusing on people with FCS that are associated with particularly deadly cancers. The trial will test whether cfDNA blood tests can detect cancer earlier than medical imaging, which is typically used to screen people with FCS.

Pugh applied for the award through his role as Senior Scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (University Health Network. His co-PIs on the project include OICR associates Dr. Raymond Kim (also leader of the OICR-supported Ontario Hereditary Cancer Network (OHCRN)) and Dr. Yvonne Bombard.

In addition to these projects, OICR President and Scientific Director Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi joins Pugh and Notta as co-recipients for a study that focuses on biliary tract cancer, a hard-to-treat cancer resistant to chemotherapy. The research team will facilitate the formation of a community linking together patients, researchers and clinicians and will develop and test a new immunotherapy. Dr. Radvanyi and his lab will focus on finding tumour antigens that can be used for cancer vaccines and studying how retroelements and human endogenous retroviruses, emerging as cancer drivers, can be identified and targeted to detect and treat biliary tract cancer.

“Finding new tools and strategies to manage the most difficult cancers has long been a priority for OICR, especially efforts for more early detection and intervention that will be critical in increasing survival of patients with these cancers. My colleagues and I are proud to join in this massive team effort,” Radvanyi says. “Congratulations to Dr. Gallinger, Dr. Pugh, all the other awardees and to the Canadian Cancer Society and its partners. Working together in such large numbers and across diverse disciplines, we’re sure to make a lasting impact for patients.”

For more information about the Breakthrough Team Grants and the funded projects, visit the
Canadian Cancer Society website.