Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Medical technologists preparing sections of biopsy samples at the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Toronto General Hospital. (Fred Lum)
Medical technologists preparing sections of biopsy samples at the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Toronto General Hospital. (Fred Lum)

Health

Taking a gamble on innovative cancer research Add to ...

A funny thing happens when a growing group of health researchers compete for a shrinking pool of funding: Innovation takes a back seat.

“At the end of the day, [peer-review panels]are reluctant to take a chance with limited dollars on supporting those really innovative proposals and that’s particularly true when we’re talking about donor dollars,” said Christine Williams, vice-president of research at the Canadian Cancer Society, which in 2010/2011 granted $48.9-million to researchers.

More related to this story

And so her organization is taking a gamble on 23 researchers, who on Wednesday received an average of $200,000 each as part of a new funding program that supports innovative, unusual and even counterintuitive projects.

It’s a program Tom Hudson, the president of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, applauds. Some types of cancer that are hard to treat, such as pancreatic cancer, require risky approaches and too often researchers shy away because they fear they won’t receive funding.

“High risk means many will fail but if it works, it can have high impact,” he said.

Here are some of the risk takers who received the Canadian Cancer Society’s innovation grants:

Feed, don’t starve, a tumour

The researcher:

Geoffrey Pickering, cardiologist and professor in the University of Western Ontario’s medicine, biochemistry and medical biophysics department

The idea:

Starve a tumour of its blood supply to kill it: That’s the long-held and widely accepted theory in cancer treatment. But what if you instead fed that tumour and let it grow?

Dr. Pickering’s theory is that if you increase the blood supply to the tumour until it reaches the point of being “overfed,” it might not spread any further. Research suggests that when there’s a good supply of oxygen to a tumour, radiation therapy is also more effective.

He’ll test his hypothesis on mice with a range of cancers, tracking their blood flow, tumour growth and the spread of cancer.

The inspiration behind it:

A cardiologist conducting cancer research? It’s not such a far-fetched idea for Dr. Pickering, who says discoveries in the way the cardiovascular system functions can be applied. For years he researched blood-vessel disease, understanding how blood-vessel walls can be kept healthy.

Because the blood vessels tumours build aren’t very good, Dr. Pickering hypothesized, “maybe, in fact, the imperfect blood flow in a tumour actually in some ways works against it.”

“If you could improve the blood vessels – even though it sounds a little bit counterintuitive in some ways – that might be best in some circumstances,” he explained.

Diagnose cancer with the help of ancient sea parasites

The researcher:

Goetz Ehrhardt, immunologist in the University of Toronto’s department of immunology

The idea:.

To Great Lakes fishermen, sea lampreys are a blood-sucking, fish-killing nuisance. The sharp-toothed, eel-like creatures may look like they were invented in Tim Burton’s studio, but they’ve been around for millions of years. To Dr. Ehrhardt, they could be the key to more effective cancer diagnosis.

In his lab, Dr. Ehrhardt will immunize sea-lamprey larvae with cancer cells, which will prompt the larvae's immune systems to produce antibodies. Those antibodies, when isolated, can be used to diagnose multiple myeloma (which affects the body’s plasma cells) with far greater specificity than conventional antibodies.

Dr. Ehrhardt says antibodies from the sea lamprey, that very distantly related species, could potentially be used to recognize malignant cells for a range of different types of cancer in humans.

“In a way it’s a bit like a parallel universe but one that has huge application possibilities,” he said.

The inspiration behind it:

A few years ago, Dr. Ehrhardt was on a research team that discovered the unique adaptive immune system of the sea lamprey. They found the protein architecture of the sea-lamprey antibodies was extremely different from that of a human, or any other mammal for that matter, which could allow the antibodies it produced to detect structures that conventional antibodies couldn't.

If this was the case, Dr. Ehrhardt wondered if lampreys could potentially detect cancers that other antibodies were missing.

Stimulate the immune system with a virus

The researcher:

Rebecca Auer, clinical oncologist and associate scientist of cancer therapeutics at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

The idea:

“The time before and after surgery is considered this untouchable time where you can’t give any therapies against cancer because the patient has to heal,” Dr. Auer said.

Problem is, this hands-off period is when a patient’s immune system is weakened and his cancer can grow and spread.

Dr. Auer wants to understand why one particular part of the immune system – Natural Killer cells – are suppressed after surgery, but also how to reverse that. She plans to use a unique type of virus therapy at the time of the surgery to stimulate those Natural Killer cells so they continue fighting the cancer in that key period of post-operative recovery. She’ll test her theory on both animal and human models.

The inspiration behind it:

During her residency, Dr. Auer worked on a team that looked at oncolytic viruses – viruses that kill cancers but leave normal tissues unharmed. Several years later, when she was performing surgeries on patients with colorectal cancer, she wondered whether there was a place for new types of therapy, including viruses, in boosting a patient’s immunity post-surgery.

“If Natural Killer cells are so important after surgery and they don’t work very well after surgery ... maybe if we stimulate them with viruses at the time of surgery, we could improve the outcome of patients,” she said.

Take the sniper approach to cancer treatment

The researcher:

Kevin Kane, professor in the medical microbiology and immunology department of the University of Alberta

The idea:

Consider chemotherapy the atom-bomb approach to treating cancer: You might achieve the goal of destroying the body’s cancer cells, but you’ll also annihilate plenty of healthy cells. Dr. Kane’s project aims to kill cancer like a sniper.

His team will use a new screening technology to analyze prostate-cancer proteins and figure out which ones can be identified and targeted by killer cells, a key component of the body’s immune system.

“Our idea is to be able to direct those killer cells to kill the tumour cells but not surrounding cells,” Dr. Kane said.

The inspiration behind it:

Dr. Kane read about this unique process used to screen drugs in which thousands of genes were analyzed at once.

“I saw that that had great potential and nobody had used it with the immune system,” he said.

He hypothesized that if he knew which proteins stimulated which killer cells, he’d be able to expand the number of those killer cells and transfer them back into the patient as a way of treating their cancer.

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular