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Coming together to improve outcomes for cancer patients in Atlantic Canada through precision medicine

The Atlantic Cancer Consortium (ACC) was conceptualised in 2018 as a part of Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network (MoHCCN), a pan-Canadian initiative led by the Terry Fox Foundation and the Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) with the support of partner institutions across the Atlantic region. Focusing on precision medicine, ACC will harness the power and productivity of our leading Atlantic cancer research community to improve cancer diagnoses, predict how different people will respond to treatments, and deliver more personalized and effective treatments for the cancer patients.

Launched in January 2021 as part of TFRI’s vision to accelerate precision medicine for all Canadians, ACC is the fourth pilot project after BC-Ontario, Montreal, Prairies Cancer research consortia. The ACC pilot project will receive $3.6 million over the next two years, including a contribution of $1.5 million from TFRI. Upon completion of the pilot project, participating institutions will have a chance to apply to apply to be full members of the MoHCCN.

A unifying vision: Making precision medicine more accessible to cancer patients in Atlantic Canada

The Atlantic Cancer Consortium (ACC) is set to bring together cancer resources from across the four provinces (in the Atlantic region) into a single entity and to be integrated into the Network, following the success of our 2-year pilot project. ACC includes four sites from three provinces in the Atlantic Region: St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), Halifax in Nova Scotia (NS), Saint John and Moncton in (NB)– essentially, the goal is to reach all cancer patients in the Atlantic region.

“According to Statistics Canada, the Atlantic region has a population of 2.3 million. The populations of the provinces are: NL, 520,000 1.4/km2; NS, 923,000 17.4/km2; NB, 747,000 10.5/km2; and PEI, 143,000 25.1/km2. NL has the lowest population density due to its very large size (370,000 km2) and the very low population density in Labrador. Like much of rural Canada, patients in the Atlantic region often have to travel to access care. In addition, smaller centres or primary care physicians take on a larger role in patient navigation and long-term care than may occur in larger centres. Therefore, strategies for bringing precision medicine approaches to the Atlantic region must consider the unique nature of the region in order to successfully integrate and harmonize the molecular, cellular, and informatics approach”.

The ACC has developed five projects to establish a foundation for precision medicine in the region - three infrastructure and two research projects. These projects have been peer reviewed internationally and approved by the TFRI. The first two projects are infrastructure projects designed to build the foundation for precision medicine research across the Atlantic region. The third project is focused on building capacity and expertise throughout the region, a critical issue in order to bring precision medicine to the clinic in this region. The last two projects are demonstration projects that critically rely on the infrastructure and capacity built by the first three projects. The demonstration projects were designed to target the two deadliest cancer types in the region: lung cancer and colorectal cancer (CRC), for which the Atlantic region has the highest rates in all of Canada.

Understanding our five demonstration projects 

The ACC has developed five projects to establish a foundation for precision medicine in the region - three infrastructure and two research projects. These projects have been peer reviewed internationally and approved by the TFRI. The first two projects are infrastructure projects designed to build the foundation for precision medicine research across the Atlantic region. The third project is focused on building capacity and expertise throughout the region, a critical issue in order to bring precision medicine to the clinic in this region. The last two projects are demonstration projects that critically rely on the infrastructure and capacity built by the first three projects. The demonstration projects were designed to target the two deadliest cancer types in the region: lung cancer and colorectal cancer (CRC), for which the Atlantic region has the highest rates in all of Canada.

ACC_Integration

Illustration of how the infrastructure and capacity building projects (ACBC, bioinformatics core, and training) support the objectives of the demonstration research projects in colorectal cancer and lung cancer (Illustration credit – “Designs That Cell”)

PROJECTS

Project 1: Atlantic Canada Biobank Consortium (ACBC), the inter-provincial integration of biological material and clinical data from patients treated within the Atlantic Canada Consortium (ACC). The Atlantic Biobank will collect and store patient specimens and data using internationally recognized standards. Over the course of the 2-year pilot, the biobank will acquire at least 450 specimens from colorectal cancer (CRC) patients and 250 specimens from lung cancer patients. In addition to facilitate research collaborations and clinical trials through the colorectal and lung cancer collections, the long-term goal will be to expand the biobank collection to additional types of human biological material (e.g. multiple myeloma, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, glioma, and prostate cancer) and add retrospective data and samples from existing collections when possible.

Project 2: Bioinformatics Core. ACC will advance bioinformatics capability to ensure all of our patients have access to the most advanced technologies in the most efficient manner possible. The long-term goal will be to build a critical mass of clinical bioinformatics personnel in cancer care and research (for training purposes, knowledge sharing, and recruitment) and a robust genomics data sharing and analytics platform in Atlantic Canada. As well, we will integrate our analyses with the rest of Canada so that data collected in other regions can improve care in Atlantic Canada, and vice versa.

Project 3: Training and Education in Precision Medicine. Building on the strengths of the Atlantic-wide Cancer Research Training Program, offered by the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI), ACC will offer educational and hands-on training opportunities in biobanking (collection and storage of biomaterials), bioinformatics (acquisition and analysis of associated data), and fundamental science to discover research trainees well as clinical residents specializing in all aspects of cancer care. This will build a critical mass of local expertise to ensure that Atlantic Canada continues to offer the most advance care. The goal is to establish a core curriculum for training in precision medicine that can be expanded and shared countrywide.

Project 4: Molecular, Genetic and Immune Profiling of Colorectal Cancer in Atlantic Canada. Building on prior work with families from our region who have inherited an increased risk of developing CRC, the ACC will use novel analytical approaches to look for new predictive markers (genetic mutations and risk factors), and examine the role of the immune system and gut microbiome in a prospective cohort of patients with colorectal cancer. In addition, we will integrate the use of blood samples as a liquid biopsy for CRC diagnosis and monitoring as a method to improve access to care for rural regions.

Project 5: Clinical implementation of enhanced next-generation sequencing (NGS) based lung cancer molecular profiling in Atlantic Canada: reaching a rural and underserved Population. Leveraging our existing molecular oncology infrastructure for lung cancer, the ACC will focus on delivering precision medicine to lung cancer patients in rural and underserved areas. This will involve enhancing our current lung cancer biomarker profiling above existing levels, and supporting liquid biopsy research to reduce the need for tumour biopsies and diagnostic imaging and to more rapidly assess therapeutic response. Lastly, we will quantify and evaluate the barriers in the region that result in inadequate access to high-quality molecular diagnostics.

 

Atlantic Cancer Consortium Partners

RESEARCH PARTNERS

Nova Scotia:

  • Dalhousie University
  • Nova Scotia Health - QEII Health Sciences Centre

    New Brunswick:

    • Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre
    • Vitalité Health Network
    • Saint John Regional Hospital
    • Horizon Health Network
    • Atlantic Cancer Research Institute

    Newfoundland & Labrador:

    • Memorial University of Newfoundland
    • Eastern Health

    FUNDERS

    National:

    • Terry Fox Research Institute
    • MITACS Canada
    • AstraZeneca Canada
    • Pfizer Canada
    • Hoffmann-La Roche Limited

    Nova Scotia:

    • Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI)
    • QEII Foundation
    • Research Nova Scotia

    New Brunswick:

    • New Brunswick Health Research Foundation
    • New Brunswick Innovation Foundation

    Newfoundland & Labrador:

    • Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN)
    • Department of Industry, Energy and Technology, Govt. of Newfoundland & Labrador

     

    ACC Team

    Program Lead

    Sherri Christian, PhD, Associate Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada 

    Christian

    Dr. Christian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Memorial University of Newfound and. Her research interests are in the regulation of cell-cell communication in breast cancer and in leukaemia. Recently, she has also focused on the role of extracellular vesicles in normal B cell development.

    Provincial Leads

    John Thoms MD, MSc, FRCPC, Associate Professor, Radiation Oncologist, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Thoms

    Dr. Thoms is a Radiation Oncologist and Clinician Scientist at the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Center and Associate Professor within the Discipline of Oncology at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL, since May 2011. He is the Physician Director of the Oncology Clinical Trials Group at Memorial University / Eastern Health. He is BioBank site lead for NL as part of ACC. His primary research interests pertain to novel biomarkers of radiotherapy response, proteomic technologies and novel clinical trials

    Stephen M. Lewis, PhD, Assistant Scientific Director, Atlantic Cancer Research Institute

    Lewis_StephenDr. Stephen Lewis joined the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in 2008 as a Research Scientist and has been the Assistant Scientific Director since 2013. The overall goals of his research program are to gain an understanding of the molecular and cell biology changes that lead to cancer development and progression, as well as to identify new biomarkers of disease and novel therapeutic targets.

    Tony Reiman, MD, SM, FRCPC, Medical Oncologist, Saint John Regional Hospital, Assistant Dean, Research, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick

    ReimanDr. Tony Reiman is a medical oncologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital, Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Chair at the University of New Brunswick, and the TFRI Atlantic Node Leader. Dr. Reiman’s research interests include novel therapeutics and biomarkers in multiple myeloma, lymphoma and lung cancer.

    Robin Urquhart, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Dalhousie University

    Urquhart

    Dr. Robin Urquhart is an Associate Professor & Canadian Cancer Society Endowed Chair in Population Cancer Research in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University. She is also Scientific Director of Atlantic PATH, Senior Scientist at the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute and Affiliate Scientist at Nova Scotia Health. Dr. Urquhart is a cancer health services researcher, focusing on access to, disparities in, and quality of cancer care across the care continuum.

    Project Leads

    Project 1

    Sidney E. Croul, MD, FRCPC, Professor, Dalhousie University, Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine

    Croul

    Sidney Croul, MD, FRCPC is Medical Director of the NSHA / Dalhousie Biobank and the Lead Investigator of the Atlantic Canada Biobank Consortium for the ACC TFRI MOH. He is Professor of Pathology and Senior Neuropathologist in the Dalhousie University Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. 

    Project 2

    Daniel Gaston, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology, Dalhousie University, Clinical Laboratory Bioinformatician, Nova Scotia Health Authority

    Gaston_DanielDr. Gaston is a Clinical Bioinformatician with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and Assistant Professor of Pathology at Dalhousie University. His clinical work is profiling oncology samples for molecular diagnostics and research focuses on translational applications of genomics and bioinformatics. 

    Tom Belbin, Associate Professor and GSK Research Chair, Discipline of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Belbin

    GlaxoSmithKline Chair in Oncology Research.  Interested in the analysis of DNA methylation in the genomes of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells. These biomarkers can be used to identify novel proteins that are epigenetically silenced in tumor cells, and those proteins whose expression may correlate with tumor phenotypes.

     

    Project 3

    Sherri Christian, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Christian

    Dr. Christian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Memorial University of Newfound and. Her research interests are in the regulation of cell-cell communication in breast cancer and in leukaemia. Recently, she has also focused on the role of extracellular vesicles in normal B cell development.

    Project 4 

    Kara Laing, MD, FRCPC, Associate Professor and Chair, Discipline of Oncology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Sheila Drover, PhD, Associate Professor, Division of Biomedical Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Drover

    Dr. Sheila Drover is an Associate Professor in Immunology at the Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University and a Senior Scientist at the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute. Her research interests include analysis of the tumor microenvironment in breast and colorectal cancers, immunotherapy and immunomodulation of cancer cell lines using targeted therapy.

    Project 5

    Tony Reiman, MD, SM, FRCPC, Medical Oncologist, Saint John Regional Hospital, Assistant Dean, Research, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick

    Reiman

    Dr. Tony Reiman is a medical oncologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital, Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Chair at the University of New Brunswick, and the TFRI Atlantic Node Leader. Dr. Reiman’s research interests include novel therapeutics and biomarkers in multiple myeloma, lymphoma and lung cancer.

    Robin Urquhart, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Dalhousie University

    Urquhart

    Dr. Robin Urquhart is an Associate Professor & Canadian Cancer Society Endowed Chair in Population Cancer Research in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University. She is also Scientific Director of Atlantic PATH, Senior Scientist at the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute and Affiliate Scientist at Nova Scotia Health. Dr. Urquhart is a cancer health services researcher, focusing on access to, disparities in, and quality of cancer care across the care continuum.

    Institutional Representatives

    Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute 

    Gerry Johnston, PhD, FCAHS, Scientific Director, Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute, Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University

    Johnston_GerryDr. Gerry Johnston is the Scientific Director of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute and Professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology (Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University).
    Dr. Johnston’s research program involved approaches of molecular genetics and biochemistry to investigate the regulation of cellular processes such as control of cell proliferation and membrane trafficking. At the national level, Dr. Johnston has provided academic leadership for agencies including CIHR, the National Cancer Institute of Canada (now called The Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute) and the Terry Fox Research Institute. In 2011, Dr. Johnston was elected as a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. https://bhcri.ca/

    Atlantic Node TFRI Lead

    Tony Reiman, MD, SM, FRCPC, Medical Oncologist, Saint John Regional Hospital, Assistant Dean, Research, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick

    ReimanDr. Tony Reiman is a medical oncologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital, Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Chair at the University of New Brunswick, and the TFRI Atlantic Node Leader. Dr. Reiman’s research interests include novel therapeutics and biomarkers in multiple myeloma, lymphoma and lung cancer.

    Project Manager

    Neetu Singh, PhD, Memorial University of Newfoundland

    Singh_NeetuDr. Neetu Singh obtained her PhD from the Central Drug Research Institute, India where she focused on developing specific drugs against cervical cancer. She pursued her postdoctoral training studying brain tumor microenvironment at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her passion for the community drove her to join the Marathon of Hope -Atlantic Cancer Consortium and she is dedicated to contribute towards the hard work of researchers and clinicians to help find a cure for this complex disease.

    ACC Contacts

    For any questions, please contact:

    Neetu Singh, PhD
    Project Manager, Atlantic Cancer Consortium
    Room - M5M312, New Medicine Building
    300 Prince Phillips Dr. Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s NL
    Ph: +1-587-969-3237
    Email: Neetu.singh@mun.ca

    Opportunities

    Fall 2021 Cancer Research Training Program

    The Fall 2021 Cancer Research Training Program funding competition is now open!

    Intent to Apply form is due by 4:00 pm ADT on 7 September 2021. The CRTP Application deadline is 4:00pm ADT on 1 October 2021. Funding will begin on January 1, 2022.

    To apply, please visit BHCRI website to download the Intent to Apply form, CRTP Traineeship Application  and Checklist: http://bhcri.ca/traineeship-application-package.”