How OICR researchers are helping understand and overcome COVID-19

Corona virus.

OICR researchers are advising and engaging in COVID-19 research initiatives in Ontario and around the world

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform research, health care and society, scientists from around the world have responded with great public spirit and unprecedented cooperation. Many cancer researchers have harnessed their capacity to help – and OICR researchers are no exception.

OICR researchers are contributing to the global effort to develop new COVID-19 diagnostic technologies, treatments and research tools. Here are a few examples of their contributions:

  • Dr. Jared Simpson is contributing his long-read genomic sequencing expertise to help sequence the virus from patients at local Toronto hospitals. This information will be shared in a global data-sharing effort to track the evolution of the virus over time and geographies.
  • Drs. Lincoln Stein and Christina Yung are working with Public Health Ontario to develop a new website for collecting and tracking self-reported symptoms of COVID-19 from Ontarians who have been tested for the virus.
  • Dr. Philip Awadalla is leading an effort to survey CanPath study participants on their health status. These data, when linked with the participant’s genetic and health data, may contribute to our understanding of how the virus affects different individuals.
  • Dr. Trevor Pugh’s research group is developing new, faster tests to detect the virus from extracted RNA. This effort will contribute to a local health care worker testing initiative under development called RESPECT.
  • Dr. John Bartlett’s group is exploring methods that may supplement testing for the virus while avoiding the use lab chemicals that are in high demand. This effort will also contribute to RESPECT as they look for alternatives to traditional testing should key lab reagents be in low supply.
  • Dr. Lincoln Stein and his Reactome team are collaborating with international researchers to annotate SARS-CoV-2 genomic variants and the interactions that occur between the virus and human cells. All of their findings will be shared in open-source databases.
  • Drs. Laszlo Radvanyi and John Bartlett are working together with partners to develop a randomized Phase III clinical trial to test an “immune system boosting” agent to help fight coronavirus infection in cancer patients in Ontario that are immunosuppressed and highly susceptible to the virus. OICR will be performing biomarker analysis of immune responses in the cancer patients on this trial.
  • Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi is also lending his support and immunology expertise in working with a biotechnology company in Toronto developing a nanoparticle (RNA-based) vaccine against COVID-19.
  • Dr. Gennady Poda and collaborators at Sunnybrook Research Institute are using OICR supercomputers and advanced computational chemistry techniques to identify new therapeutics and existing drugs that could be reused for the treatment of COVID-19 infections.
  • Drs. Jared Simpson and Trevor Pugh are working with researchers at Mount Sinai Health System to identify characteristics of patients that result in poor or favourable response to infection by looking at genetic factors, antibody measurements, immune profiling, and viral sequences. Dr. Simpson is leading experiments to map and compare viral strains across patients and Dr. Pugh is seeking to understand how the diversity of people’s immune cell repertoire are shaped by infection and eventual clearance of virus.
  • Drs. Marc Fiume, Lincoln Stein and Christina Yung are developing COVID Cloud, a software platform for sharing and analysis of viral and host genomes for COVID-19 and other diseases with genetic determinants.

OICR also recognizes the valuable COVID-19 data resources and repositories designed and managed by members of the greater OICR community.

  • COVID-19 Resources Canada is a central hub for those involved in COVID-19 research and development in Canada. The hub, which was developed in part by OICR Senior Project Manager Dr. Michelle Brazas, serves as a repository for researchers to locate human resources, expertise, reagents, equipment and information in a timely manner.
  • The COVID-19 Beacon led by OICR Associate Dr. Marc Fiume, has indexed and shared thousands of virus genomes from around the world. Researchers can use the beacon to discover virus sequences with specific genetic mutations and chart their geographic and evolutionary origins.
  • Flatten is a web-based, crowdsourced data-gathering platform, providing real-time heat maps of self-reported COVID-19 cases across the country. The platform was designed and built by university students, including former OICR intern, Yifei Zhang.

“The OICR staff, Board of Directors, and scientific advisory committees continue to work, albeit mostly remotely, to allow us to carry out our mission with limited interruption,” says Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, President and Scientific Director of OICR. “Throughout this crisis, OICR will remain focused on advancing cancer research while contributing to COVID research activities where we can.”

OICR recognizes that many people living with cancer are facing particularly difficult circumstances at this time. Our priority remains to improve the lives of people living with cancer in Ontario and around the world. Our regular cancer research activities will resume fully as soon as it is safe to do so.

Read our message to the OICR research community about the COVID-19 pandemic.


Please note, this page will be updated as new information becomes available. Working on an initiative that you’d like to see here? Email info@oicr.on.ca.

Posted: April 7, 2020

Updated: September 21, 2020