Our recent research achievements

Translating a leukemia discovery into a leukemia treatment

WDR 5 MoleculeIn partnership with FACIT, OICR’s Drug Discovery (OICR DD) group has developed a new potential drug for leukemia patients that disrupts a key cellular pathway driving the disease. OICR DD’s extensive scientific experience made this drug discovery possible, while FACIT’s business and management expertise was essential to support and accelerate the research.

In early 2019, FACIT and OICR secured an investment of up to US$1 billion from Celgene to bring this discovery into clinical testing. If all options under the investment are exercised, the deal will be the largest transaction to date for a preclinical asset discovered in Canada.

OICR is working with FACIT and other Ontario partners to ensure benefits of this research, including jobs, manufacturing and clinical trials, remain in the province.

Powering the future of pathology in Canada

Pathologist at work.As new diagnostic and prognostic tools continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly important for pathologists to engage in cancer research and understand new developments across scientific disciplines. In partnership with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, the Ontario Molecular Pathology Network (OMPRN) has helped establish new, more rigorous training standards for pathology trainees.

These standards will help ensure that treatment decisions in the clinic are well informed by both conventional pathology techniques and novel tools and resources.

Developing an improved image-guided treatment system for breast cancer

While conventional radiation treatment often requires many hospital visits over weeks or months, Dr. Aaron Fenster, Co-Director of OICR’s Imaging Program, and his team have developed a new ultrasound-guided system that helps administer breast cancer radiation treatment in a single hospital visit, reducing the burden of treatment especially for women who live far from treatment centres and reducing the negative side effects of traditional radiotherapy. The system uses ultrasound to guide the implantation of tiny radioactive pellets into the breast tissue with a high degree of ease and accuracy. This technology has been designed and tested in the Fenster Lab at Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario and is now undergoing clinical development in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Creating the world’s largest database of pediatric genomic data

Thumbnail of Kids First websiteOICR’s Genome Informatics team has developed and launched the Kids First Data Resource Portal, a data portal to the world’s largest database of pediatric genomic data hosted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Kids First will help advance personalized medicine for childhood cancers and birth defects while empowering collaborative discovery between patients, their families and researchers. Kids First aims to make the data from 30,000 DNA and RNA samples available to the greater research community over the next few years.

Discovering new paradigms in cancer stem cell therapy

Researcher in the labAs part of OICR’s Acute Leukemia Translational Research Initiative (TRI), researchers at McMaster University have uncovered a new cause of why leukemia sometimes returns after treatment, which disputes the popular theory that chemotherapy cannot destroy the cancer stem cells that are thought to drive the disease’s growth and spread. They’ve also uncovered new ways to target the cells that may cause relapse. These findings, published in Cancer Cell, could be used to design therapies against leukemia and improve long-term survival of leukemia patients.

Informing individualized pancreatic cancer treatment

COMPASS imageOICR’s COMPASS is the first large trial to bring personalized medicine to pancreatic cancer patients. In its pilot stage at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, COMPASS has completed rapid, comprehensive genomic analysis of biopsies taken at diagnosis to guide the selection of second line therapy. COMPASS has helped identify individualized treatment options for 30 per cent of patients based on the unique molecular characteristics of their tumours. Now, COMPASS is expanding to cancer centres across Ontario and Canada in partnership with the Terry Fox Research Institute and the Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation.

Finding leukemia years before it develops

AML ImageOICR-supported researchers have found traces of acute myeloid leukemia in patients up to a decade before the disease becomes aggressive. The collaborative research team mined through hundreds of healthy patient samples looking for early indicators of the disease. They were able to accurately identify rare mutations and distinguish these mutations from healthy aging, which has never been done before. This research has uncovered new opportunities to detect leukemia earlier and treat the disease more effectively.

Channeling the immune system to work against hard-to-treat cancers

Scientists in the labOICR-funded researchers have created a method to sensitize triple-negative breast cancers to common immunotherapy techniques. They’ve designed a virus that can preferentially infect cancer cells and, in combination with immune checkpoint inhibitors, achieve a cure rate of up to 90 per cent in mouse models. This group of Ottawa researchers, supported by OICR’s Immuno-oncology Translational Research Initiative (ACTION), are now pursuing these mechanisms in other models of the disease.

Finding new ways to prevent virus-induced stomach cancers

OICR researchers, in collaboration with Dr. Lori Frappier at the University of Toronto, have identified a key protein expressed by the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) that is a likely driver behind virus-induced stomach cancers. To do so, they assembled new EBV genomes and performed the most extensive sequence analysis of EBV isolates to date. They then performed genomic and proteomic analyses on these samples and identified a DNA damage response pathway that promotes the transformation of normal cells into cancerous cells. With their new knowledge, the Frappier lab is continuing to pursue their research on EBV and how to prevent it from inducing stomach cancer in the first place.

Blocking lung cancer before it spreads

OICR researchers at McMaster University discovered two key genes driving the spread of lung cancer to the brain while developing an animal model to study Brain Metastases Initiating Cells (BMICs) in vivo. Their findings, which were published in Acta Neuropathologica, could be used to identify patients who are most at risk of developing brain metastasis and develop drugs to block the spread of lung cancer.

Discovering breakthrough viral immunotherapies

Image of the Maraba virusOICR researchers have discovered and developed new immunotherapy approaches for various cancers using the Maraba virus. Their technology has been commercialized by Turnstone Biologics, who has recently partnered with AbbVie to further develop cancer-fighting virus-based therapies. Turnstone has secured US$41 million in its latest financing round and has been recognized as one of the top 15 biotech start-ups in the world. Currently, their therapies are being tested in clinical trials.

Tracking how cancer progresses in real time

Dr. Peter DirksOICR researchers based at the Hospital for Sick Children have developed a new method using a barcode-like system to see how brain cancer cells evade treatment and spread. Using these methods, the research team found that only a few of the barcoded cells gave rise to long-term tumour growth. Their research, published in Nature, showed that the behavior of glioblastoma is very structured, despite genetic differences between cancer cells. They unveiled vulnerabilities in glioblastoma that can be better targeted to treat this lethal type of brain cancer.

Characterizing the environmental drivers of cancer and chronic disease

Dr. AwadallaAn OICR research team has found that environmental exposures, including air pollution, affect gene expression associated with respiratory diseases much more than genetic ancestry. The study, published in Nature Communications, analyzed more than 1.6 million data points from biological specimens, health questionnaires and environmental datasets, making this study one of the largest ever to examine the relationship between gene expression and environmental stimuli. These findings represent a groundbreaking use of big data to uncover the environmental factors that are behind diseases and inform strategies for prevention, an approach that would apply to a number of diseases, including cancer.

Read more about the environmental drivers of cancer and chronic disease

Integrating chronic disease prevention across Canada

Dr. GrunfeldThe BETTER Program has recently been awarded $2.98 million from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer to launch the BETTER Prevention Practitioner Training Institute – a national effort that is expanding the BETTER approach across seven Canadian provinces. The BETTER program – established by OICR-supported researcher, Dr. Eva Grunfeld – is focused on integrating primary care practices and training practitioners to provide in-depth analyses to each patient based on several health and lifestyle factors. The BETTER approach has been validated in clinical studies and will be employed by more than 600 practitioners over the next three years.