On February 15, 2018, Minister Navdeep Bains announced that the British Columbia-led Digital Technology Supercluster will receive funding from the federal Innovation Supercluster Initiative.
The project brings together over 200 organisations—including the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret (PM) Cancer Centre—to work on 100 projects that will “digitally transform companies, solve industry problems and advance economic opportunities.”
The Government of Canada defines a Cluster as “dense area of business activity containing a critical mass of large and small companies, post-secondary and other research institutions. They energize the economy and act as engines of growth,” while a Supercluster has even “stronger connections, a long-term competitive advantage, global brand recognition, and an outsized positive impact on job creation and economic growth.”
According to the press release, within the realm of healthcare, the Digital Technology Supercluster will enable the creation of “A secure, anonymous Health and Genomic Platform” that will be used by “medical specialists to create custom, leading-edge cancer treatments that are personalized to the unique genetic makeup of each patient, building on Canada’s current leadership in this area.”
The Digital Technology Supercluster is one of five successful superclusters; together, these superclusters will receive $1.4B in total investments from the federal government and funding partners. The Co-Chair of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster consortium, Bill Tam, comments, “It is an exciting and historic time for innovation in Canada. The Digital Technology Supercluster is a generational opportunity – one that holds significant promise for companies in BC and across Canada.”
Projects funded within the Digital Technology Supercluster will:
The creation of this Supercluster was made possible by the following founding members: AMPD, Aeroinfo, Augurex, Avcorp, BC Business Council, BC Tech Association, Change Healthcare, D-Wave, Life Sciences BC, Microsoft, Providence Health Care (supported by St. Paul’s Foundation), Premiers’ Technology Council of BC, Research Universities’ Council of BC, Teck, Telus, Terramera, Timberwest, Urthecast and Wavefront. In this latest round, additional support has been provided from Shoppers Drugs Mart, Canfor, GE Digital, Illumina, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre at University Health Network (supported by The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation), SickKids and the Terry Fox Research Institute.
Nanovista Inc., a start-up company co-founded by Drs. David Jaffray, Jinzi Zheng, and Christine Allen of UHN and the University of Toronto, recently received investments of $1.8M with the help of GreenSky Capital Inc. and its affiliated venture capital funds.
Nanovista is developing nanoparticle-based visualization agents that are designed to improve image-guided cancer therapy, including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The nanoparticle system enhances a clinician’s ability to visualize a tumour using different imaging technologies, such as CT. One advantage to Nanovista’s agents is that the same particles can be used in planning and to guide the actual surgery itself.
The funds raised will be used to complete the final stage of pre-clinical studies and a Phase I clinical trial in individuals with head and neck, or lung cancer.
Nanovista also recently welcomed Steven Chackowicz as its new CEO. A serial entrepreneur, he has experience in leadership roles in companies that include Exact Imaging, Aspect Imaging and VisualSonics. Michael List, Principal at GreenSky Capital added, “The Nanovista team has developed a best-in-class technology; adding a CEO with Steven’s experience makes this a compelling investment and an exciting addition to our portfolio.”
Full disclosure: UHN has an ownership stake in Nanovista.
A compass is an invaluable tool for campers and sailors—helping them navigate in the right direction.
Like a compass, personalized cancer medicine is an approach that guides treatment options by using the genetic features of tumours. It categorizes tumours based on these features, enabling clinicians to predict which treatment options are likely to be effective; however, its widespread implementation is often hampered by a lack of available genetic information.
This is the case for patients with advanced pancreatic ductal carcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer. People with PDAC have low rates of survival; despite this, many will undergo toxic ‘one-size-fits-all’ therapies that are not effective in treating the cancer. Identifying personalized medicine approaches would improve quality of life and outcome for this group of patients.
To address this issue, a network of investigators across Canada and the United States—led by Dr. Jennifer Knox (Princess Margaret Clinical Researcher)—initiated the COMPASS trial (Comprehensive Molecular Characterization of Advanced Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma for Better Treatment Selection).
In this trial, the genetic features of tumours from patients with PDAC were characterized before treatment using advanced sequencing technologies. The research team developed profiles of these features, which were reviewed monthly by a group of experts. Based on this information, research participants were continued on standard therapies, but were also considered earlier for other potential therapies on trials.
The team found that this genomic assessment could be safely integrated into current practices for almost all of the study participants, a success not previously demonstrated in advanced PDAC patients. Moreover, with the quick turnaround time of analysis by the experts, the results of the genetic testing revealed a potential ability to learn from the growing library of reports and tailor treatments to individual patients in ‘real time’.
“The COMPASS trial is the first to establish a real-time model for genetic characterization of PDAC tumours and it has already generated a wealth of data that can be leveraged for more patient-directed study options,” explains Dr. Knox. “The trial is still ongoing, so we will continue to assess more patients using this personalized medicine approach towards helping clinicians and patients make more informed decisions for treatment.”
This work was supported by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, The McCain Centre for Pancreas Cancer, The Wilfred Lewitt Research Chair for Pancreas Cancer Research, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Lebovic Chair in Hepatobiliary/Pancreatic Surgical Oncology, the National Cancer Institute and The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.
Aung KL, Fischer SE, Denroche RE, Jang GH, Dodd A, Creighton S, Southwood B, Liang SB, Chadwick D, Zhang A, O'Kane GM, Albaba HAA, Moura S, Grant RC, Miller JK, Mbabaali F, Pasternack D, Lungu IM, Bartlett JMS, Ghai S, Lemire M, Holter S, Connor AA, Moffitt RA, Yeh JJ, Timms L, Krzyzanowski PM, Dhani NC, Hedley DW, Notta F, Wilson JM, Moore MJ, Gallinger S, Knox JJ. Genomics-driven precision medicine for advanced pancreatic cancer - early results from the COMPASS trial. Clin Cancer Res. 2017 Dec 29. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-17-2994.
It’s easy to spot the obvious. For example, it is not difficult to imagine that people who experience physical trauma, such as serious falls or car accidents, might become paralyzed as a result of injury to their spinal cord.
What’s less obvious are the other ways in which the spinal cord can become damaged, such as that caused by degenerative diseases, tumours or cardiovascular conditions. These conditions are known as non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction.
“Because these dysfunctions are caused by a broad group of unrelated conditions, they are hard to identify and are not well studied,” explains Dr. Susan Jaglal, who is a Senior Scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. “Without true estimates of how many people are affected, we cannot begin to fulfill the needs of these individuals. To address this issue, my colleagues and I initiated a large scale study to develop a way to better identify those affected by non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction.”
The research team examined administrative health data from approximately 23,000 Canadians who were hospitalized between 2004 and 2011 for paralysis. Using these records, they developed a series of criteria to identify people affected by non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction based on their reasons for hospitalization.
The criteria that they developed were 97 per cent accurate in classifying individuals. Using these criteria to categorize the various cases revealed that the most common causes of dysfunction were degenerative disease and infection. The team also found that older individuals and women are more likely to be admitted to the hospital for non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction.
Dr. Jaglal adds, “Our study is the first to demonstrate that using nationwide administrative health data is a feasible approach to categorize people with these dysfunctions. With more research, we will be able to gain a more complete picture of those affected—findings that will inform the development of new ways to improve the delivery of care.”
These works were supported by the Rick Hansen Institute, the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, Health Canada, Western Economic Diversification Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Brain Canada Foundation, Alberta Paraplegic Foundation, University of Calgary Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Alberta Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and the Toronto Rehab Foundation.
Jaglal SB, Voth J, Guilcher SJT, Ho C, Noonan VK, McKenzie N, Cronin S, Thorogood NP, Craven BC. Creation of an algorithm to identify non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction patients in Canada using administrative health data. Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2017 Fall. doi: 10.1310/sci2304-324.
Ho C, Guilcher SJT, McKenzie N, Mouneimne M, Williams A, Voth J, Chen Y, Cronin S, Noonan VK, Jaglal SB. Validation of algorithm to identify persons with non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction in Canada using administrative health data. Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2017 Fall. doi: 10.1310/sci2304-333.
Guilcher SJT, Voth J, Ho C, Noonan VK, McKenzie N, Thorogood NP, Craven BC, Cronin S, Jaglal SB. Characteristics of non-traumatic spinal cord dysfunction in Canada using administrative health data. Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2017 Fall. doi: 10.1310/sci2304-343.
A research team led by Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Senior Scientist Dr. Naoto Hirano has engineered a molecule that may have the potential to enhance the effectiveness of existing immune therapies. The findings were published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine.
The type of immune therapy relevant to Dr. Hirano’s work is known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy—a therapy that helps patients’ own immune cells, known as T cells, to identify and fight cancer cells.
In simple terms, CAR T-cell therapies help the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells through a process that begins with the isolation of T-cells from patients. Next, these cells are genetically modified so that they produce the CAR molecule on their surface. The CAR molecule is a modified version of a T-cell receptor that is specifically engineered to recognize tumour cells. These genetically modified cells are then grown in a lab to increase their numbers before being infused back into patients.
Dr. Hirano comments, “Once they are infused back into patients, CAR T-cells grow, multiply and are able to target and kill cancer cells, but there are many roadblocks. Currently, CAR T-cell therapy has only been approved in the United States for blood cancers such as advanced lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Part of the reason for this may be that existing CAR constructs—while good at alerting the immune system to the presence of cancer—don’t produce certain signals that are known to support the continued destruction of the cancer cells."
To overcome this, Dr. Hirano’s team engineered a CAR molecule that activates specific protein signalling pathways—including the JAK kinase, STAT3 and STAT5 pathways—which are known to enhance the growth and function of T-cells.
“In our experimental models, the CAR molecule we engineered enabled T-cells to display more potent activity against different cancers, including solid tumours, which remain a challenge in the field. Current CAR T-cell therapies have shown limited success when treating solid tumours likely because of the harsh conditions faced by immune cells attempting to infiltrate the interior of the tumour. Furthermore, in these same models we did not observe any worsening of potential side effects,” says Dr. Hirano.
While these findings are preliminary, the performance of the engineered CAR T-cells created by Dr. Hirano’s team suggest that optimizing CAR molecules may help to broaden the effectiveness of CAR T-cell therapies against different cancers. Future work will focus on translating these findings into clinical trials to explore the safety and efficacy of the engineered CAR molecule.
This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, BioCanRX, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Government of Ontario, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Takara Bio, Inc., and The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.
Kagoya Y, Tanaka S, Guo T, Anczurowski M, Wang C-H, Saso K, Butler MO, Minden MD, Hirano N. A novel chimeric antigen receptor containing a JAK–STAT signaling domain mediates superior antitumor effects. Nat Med. 2018 Feb 5. doi: 10.1038/nm.4478.
When IBM business development executive Jonathan Rezek was diagnosed with Parkinson disease, he was faced with the uncomfortable reality that there is currently no cure for the disease. As an executive at IBM, he knew he might be able to help change that.
While he was being treated at Toronto Western Hospital, he proposed something that had not been tried before: could IBM Watson—a computer system that can read and understand natural language—be used to help find new therapies?
While many people remember the Watson computer system from 2011 when it made history by winning the quiz show Jeopardy!, its first commercial application was in health care. In 2013 it was customized for use at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to manage health care decisions for lung cancer treatment.
The question asked by Jonathan Rezak at Toronto Western Hospital has now flourished into a collaboration between IBM Watson Health, the Ontario Brain Institute and UHN’s Movement Disorders Clinic (MDC). This has led to Canada’s first ever search for Parkinson disease therapeutics using a version of Watson known as IBM Watson for Drug Discovery. This computing system is cloud-based, can draw from nearly 31 million sources of relevant literature, and has the ability to analyze high volumes of medical literature and data.
Such computing power can be transformative to researchers. The project team in Toronto has set out to use this computing power to screen a vast number of pharmaceuticals already on the market to see if an existing drug can be effective in the fight against Parkinson disease.
“The platform gives us the ability to look at connections that researchers might not have found without dedicating weeks or months of time,” said Dr. Lorraine Kalia, a movement disorders neurologist and Scientist at the Krembil Research Institute. “This includes identifying compounds that we have not previously considered investigating for the treatment of Parkinson disease.”
In the fall, the TED Institute caught up with Jonathan Rezak and members of the project to showcase this novel approach. Dr. Naomi Visanji, who is part of the research team at MDC, shared her enthusiasm, “The results we’ve been finding so far have us quite intrigued. We hope to be able to one day see these drugs tested in our patients.”
While potential drugs have already been identified, rigorous preclinical testing in the lab is required before clinical trials can begin. In Dr. Visanji’s words, “We’re at this very exciting point with the potential for huge reward but we’ve got a lot of work to do in the lab before we get there.”
To watch a short video about this project, visit https://youtu.be/l-1AC6CHSJM.