Vancouver, BC – Ovarian cancer -- the most severe of all gynecological cancers-- claims the lives of over 1,750 Canadian women every year. And, just as each woman fighting the disease is unique, so are their cancers. Thanks to decades of research and recent technological advances, we now know that every humour and tumour mutation is different in every patient. It is this distinction that has set the stage for a personalized cancer vaccine, using ovarian cancer as the testing ground.
Genome British Columbia is funding a team of scientists led by Dr. Brad Nelson at BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre, in Victoria, who are exploring the possibility of using the inherent genomic instability of cancer to make it a target for such individualized therapy. Funding for this project comes from the organization’s Strategic Opportunities Fund, a program that provides one-time funding to help seed innovative projects of key strategic importance to the life sciences community.
“Modern genomics technology, specifically next-generation sequencing, allows us to identify all of the mutations in a patient’s tumour,” says Dr. Nelson.
“With this information, we can design a vaccine that helps the immune system recognize the mutations. Once activated, the immune system starts to attack the tumour as if it were a foreign body. In laboratory models, we have been able to eradicate even advanced tumors within a matter of weeks. While there is still considerable work to be done before this approach is used in the clinic, the results so far are very encouraging”
To facilitate Dr. Nelson’s work, close to 100 ovarian cancer patients in the Victoria area are donating tumour specimens and blood samples on a regular basis. These samples are being used to learn which tumour mutations are most strongly recognized by the immune system. It is expected that the first clinical trials of the ovarian cancer vaccine would be launched in three to five years.
“I have given tissue samples and I still give blood regularly for Dr. Nelson’s work because it is important for researchers to have more detail – it’s too late for a cancer vaccine to help me, but my hope is that this research will save my daughters and granddaughters some agony,” says Lorraine Dixon, a participant in the research project and cancer survivor.
It has been known for many years that cancers tend to accumulate mutations over time, and indeed some of these mutations are directly responsible for the aggressive ‘phenotype’ of cancerous cells. However, genomics technology has only now allowed us to fully exploit and amplify the natural process of the immune system in fighting foreign cells.
“As demonstrated by Dr. Nelson’s work, and the tremendous work being done by other investigators, the investment being made by Genome BC is making a significant difference to the well-being of Canadians,” says Dr. Alan Winter,
President & CEO of Genome BC. “It will be very satisfying to see the tangible results from this work in as little as three years’ time.” In addition to Dr.
Nelson’s project, four additional projects are being funded through this round of the Strategic Opportunities Fund.
• Detecting and Characterizing Chimeric Transcripts in Mouse Tissues, a project by Drs. Inanc Birol and Aly Karsan, of Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. This group is working with RNA molecules and their connection to the underlying DNA sequence. Their findings will potentially have broad implications in our understanding of complexity in cell functions, as well as how genomic events with bad consequences start, especially in cancer cells through their project.
• The Vaccinomics for Animal Disease project is looking at developing a vaccine for Johne’s Disease, a disease that’s found in cattle and causes significant losses to Canadian beef and dairy farmers every year. This project is timely as currently there is no effective therapeuticintervention against Johne’s Disease. The project will be led by Dr. Bob Hancock of UBC and Dr. Andrew Potter from the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).
• Dr. Paul Schaffer with TRIUMF at UBC, is leading the project Antisense PET Imaging of mRNA Expression Using F-18 Labeled CPP-PNA and CPP-Oligonucleotide Radiopharmaceuticals. His project aims to improve molecular imaging (MI) tools to help clinicians visualize and quantify genetic activity associated with a specific disease.
• Using Science, Technology and Society Studies Research to Move Genomics Discoveries from Bench to Bedside: Identification of Data Integration and Sociotechnical Issues Arising in Personalized Medicine & Translational Bioinformatics, is a new research project by Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Ellen Balka. Her team seeks to demonstrate the value of science, technology and society studies in addressing applied problems facing BC’s genomics researchers and businesses. The results of which will help BC maintain a strategic position in realizing benefits from the data intensive genome sciences.
Genome BC has ongoing intakes into their Strategic Opportunities Fund and other funding programs.
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About Genome British Columbia:
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $550M in research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada.
Communications Specialist, Genome BC