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Terry Fox award helps Ottawa researcher develop next-generation cancer immunovirotherapy

This project has been completed

What if there was a way to destroy cancer cells and stimulate a patient’s own immune system to attack tumours, while leaving healthy tissues unharmed?

The Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) has awarded Dr. Guy Ungerechts (The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa) a $450,000 New Investigator grant to develop innovative new treatments to achieve just that. Dr. Ungerechts is part of TFRI’s Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo), and is mentored by Dr. John Bell, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa and COVCo lead investigator.

An oncolytic virus works to destroy cancer in multiple ways, explains Dr. Ungerechts, notably by stimulating the immune system and directly killing cancer cells. The team plans to use a modified version of the Measles virus vaccine as an oncolytic “cancer vaccine”, enhancing it with a second virus (the Maraba virus) that will act as a booster.

The team is already testing a similar strategy in patients in Ottawa, Hamilton, Toronto and Vancouver. However, this trial uses one virus (Maraba) that can replicate and spread throughout the tumour and one that cannot (Adenovirus). This next-generation therapy would use two replicating oncolytic viruses, to hopefully maximize tumour destruction.

“What we would like to do in the TFRI project is use the Measles virus to mount a great response from the patient’s immune system,” said Dr. Ungerechts, who is trained as a medical oncologist and molecular virologist. “We will inject the virus right into the tumour site so it will replicate in the tumour, stimulate the immune system and hopefully destroy cancer cells.”

The Measles virus was chosen for several reasons: it’s already used as an effective vaccine for children, and has an excellent safety profile. Further, early clinical trials run by researchers from the Mayo Clinic, USA have shown impact in patients with different types of cancer.

Dr. Ungerechts is also exploring approaches to genetically modify the Measles virus to express various immunomodulatory payloads, stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. Examples include immune checkpoint inhibitors (anti-PD1/PD-L1-blockade) and bispecific T cell engagers (BITEs).

Determining which approach is most effective for killing cancer cells and stimulating the immune is an exciting prospect for Dr. Ungerechts. By the end of his three-year award, he hopes the novel treatment will be moved to clinical trials for advanced-stage cancer patients who have run out of options.

“Immuno-viro-therapy could be a paradigm shift for cancer treatment, but we are still at an early stage of this research, particularly for oncolytic viruses.” Dr. Ungerechts said. “It’s a very promising field right now. This TFRI award means a lot, and I’m more than happy to be one of the lucky people who earned it.”

“We are very excited to welcome Dr. Ungerechts to our team,” said Dr. Bell, who is also the scientific director of BioCanRx and program director for immuno- and bio-therapeutics at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). “He is a great fit with our group and brings technology and expertise that we truly value. His participation within COVCo will expand our repertoire of therapeutics for testing and diseases that we could focus our team’s expertise and ideas upon.”

Dr. Ungerechts is also supported by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

Patients interested in participating in oncolytic virus clinical trials should speak with their own oncologist, and can also consult The Ottawa Hospital website.

Mentoring Program: The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (2007-2017)

Mentors/PIs: Dr. John Bell