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Is immunotherapy effective in childhood cancers? TFRI researcher aims to find out

This project has been completed

How do different pediatric tumours respond to immunotherapy? That’s the primary question a newly funded TFRI investigator seeks to answer.

Using immunotherapy to destroy cancer cells is an exciting new treatment option for adults, but few research groups have examined its effect on children. Scientist Dr. Trevor Pugh, based at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, is using cutting-edge technologies to explore this area. He will also examine whether tumour and immune cell response to this treatment can be assessed using simple blood tests, versus invasive surgeries or biopsies.

“One of the opportunities here is trying to figure out if and why this new class of drugs, these immunotherapies, work in pediatric cancers,” said Dr. Pugh, who is also a member of three other TFRI research teams: The TFRI’s pan-Canadian immunoTherapy NeTwork, (iTNT) and multiple myeloma group, as well as a program project grant on triple-negative breast cancer.

“This is the chance to be on the real cutting-edge of new trials that are already happening in children. New genomics technologies let us look at the interplay of the cancer and immune cells in a new way.”

Single-cell RNA sequencing methods will be used to analyze what genes are expressed by the thousands of tumour cells from children with cancer, as well as which immune cells enter tumours and are affected by immunotherapy. An immune repertoire sequencing method invented by Dr. Pugh’s lab will provide a further in-depth look at shifts in these cells over time.

Immunotherapy harnesses a patient’s own immune system to eradicate cancer cells while avoiding harmful side effects associated with more traditional therapies such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. A study published in Nature in April 2016 suggests that depending on the cancer type, around 20 to 40 per cent of adult patients respond well to immunotherapy. While tumours with large numbers of mutations typically do better, there are no proven predictors of either success or eventual treatment resistance.

Dr. Pugh and his team will collaborate with TFRI’s pan-Canadian Precision Oncology for Young People (PROFYLE) program members. PROFYLE aims to treat Canadian youth diagnosed with hard-to-treat cancers under the leadership of Dr. David Malkin, a senior oncologist (SickKids) and leader of two TFRI-funded projects (PROFYLE and Li-Fraumeni Syndrome).

“Dr. Pugh is a rising star in cancer research who has already established his leadership role in the Canadian research community. He has a track record of research success and clinical translation, two key pillars upon which our program is built,” said Dr. Malkin, who will mentor Dr. Pugh. “His involvement will make our Terry Fox PROFYLE program stronger and we have a vibrant community and mission to foster his growth as a leading Canadian scientist.”

Further, for the first time in TFRI history, the entire $450,000 New Investigator Award is being made possible through the generosity of a private donor to the Terry Fox Foundation, the late Gregory Hohn of Penticton, B.C.

“This is going to be such a great, collaborative, and smart national pediatric cancer genomics group to plug into and complement,” added Dr. Pugh. ‘I’m really grateful to the TFRI – and Mr. Hohn’s family - for this opportunity.

Mentoring Program: Precision Oncology for Young People (PROFYLE)
Mentor: Dr. David Malkin