A new approach for a long-time funded Terry Fox research program has leaders of the initiative excited about personalizing treatment for cancer patients by bringing together two areas of study: genomics and hypoxia.
“We believe that if we focus only on the genetics in treating cancer that this is only part of the problem and will only give part of the solution. Hypoxia can give an added dimension and enable us to be much more precise than ever before,” says Dr. Robert Bristow. He and Dr. Bradly Wouters, investigators at the University Health Network in Toronto, are now leading the Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in hypoxia, a program formerly led by Dr. Richard Hill for many years.
Their research to date has found that patients respond poorly to treatment if their tumours are low in oxygen, a state known as ‘hypoxia’. These tumours are more likely to grow and spread aggressively. Their program entered a watershed moment in 2014 as research moved toward clinical trials for patients with cervical, head and neck, and prostate cancers.
The main goal for the latest phase of their work is to develop and evaluate new genetic and hypoxic tests in patients. The tests will allow the team to monitor when hypoxia is causing resistance to treatment and identify patients for new types of therapy.
The program benefits from the different backgrounds and expertise of its two co-leaders. Dr. Bristow is a medical doctor and clinician scientist, while Dr. Wouters is a senior researcher with expertise in basic cell biology.
Dr. Bristow explains, “I’m interested in why treatments fail and how we can be more precise in the medical approaches in the clinic. Dr. Wouter’s role is about understanding how oxygen changes the behaviour of cancer cells and what that means for the genetics of the cells. I believe that by bringing these two areas together, we will get much stronger answers than either area alone.”
“One of the strengths of the Terry Fox Research Institute is their vision to fund research teams and team science. It enables us to do science that is really not possible in individual labs,” remarks Wouters.
Both researchers believe that hypoxia will be a key factor in personalizing cancer treatments. “It’s about taking our work to individual patients, giving them individual hope and individual cures. I think it will have a great impact,” says Dr. Bristow.