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TFRI News | August 17, 2023

Five new research teams named recipients of the 2023 Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grants

Five outstanding Canadian research teams will receive a total of $12 million to advance cancer research and treatment following new awards in the 2023 Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant (PPG) competition.  

The teams, which are all new to the TFRI research portfolio, are based in British Columbia, Ontario and Québec and will focus on oral, lung, prostate, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, as well as sarcomas and neuroendocrine tumours. As new projects, each project will receive $2.4 million over a period of either four or five years. Notably, the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation will co-fund three of the projects selected this year, providing a total of $3.6 million to advance groundbreaking cancer research.  

“The multidisciplinary nature of these teams ranges from exploring the biological mechanisms of cancer to improving early diagnosis, treatments and quality of life for patients suffering from a variety of cancers,” says Dr. Jim Woodgett, TFRI president and scientific director. “This new funding, including the support generously provided by the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation, will enable these world-class researchers to explore exciting new frontiers of cancer research and improve the lives of Canadians suffering from cancer.” 

This new injection of funding also helps bring the number of active PPGs to a record high of 19. 

Seeking new frontiers in cancer research 

The five research teams were selected by committees of international experts that evaluated the projects based on their scientific merit and potential for impact. Three of the teams are based in British Columbia and are led by Drs. Eitan Prisman (University of British Columbia); Julian Lum (BC Cancer, University of Victoria); and Stephen Lam and William Lockwood (BC Cancer). Elsewhere, Drs. Hon Leong (Sunnybrook Research Institute, University of Toronto) and Benjamin Lok (Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) will co-lead a project in Ontario, and Dr. Gerardo Ferbeyre (CR-CHUM) will lead a project in Quebec.  

With co-funding from the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation, Dr. Eitan Prisman, clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, will use his new PPG to lead a team of multidisciplinary researchers looking to develop advanced surgical planning and intraoperative tools to enhance outcomes for patients undergoing mandibular (jawbone) reconstructive surgeries due to oral cancer. “This generous support will allow us to further optimize care and quality of life for patients with oral cancer and oral diseases across Canada,” says Dr. Prisman. 

Dr. Julian Lum, distinguished scientist at BC Cancer and professor at the University of Victoria, and his team will also receive funding from TFRI and the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation to develop high‐resolution images of metabolism in tumours to understand how cancer disables the immune system, laying the groundwork for new therapeutic opportunities to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy. This is the first time TFRI has funded a Program Project Grant at the Deeley Cancer Institute, based in Victoria, BC. “We are passionate that immunometabolism is a critical piece of the cancer puzzle, and the next generation of therapeutics will be based on targeting aspects of metabolism to enhance the immune response to cancer,” says Dr. Lum. “We are grateful to the TFRI for believing in our work and for bringing immunometabolism as a theme into their portfolio of funded programs." 

Drs. William Lockwood, senior scientist at BC Cancer and associate professor at UBC (Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine), and Stephen Lam, distinguished scientist at BC Cancer and professor at UBC (Department of Medicine), will co-lead a new PPG investigating the impact of air pollution on lung cancer. In another partnership with the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation and building on work previously funded by TFRI, this team will use datasets from around the world to build a lung cancer risk prediction model for non-smokers. They will also investigate the biological mechanisms of lung cancer associated with air pollution to create a non-invasive breath test for early detection. “It is our hope that findings from this new team grant will expand the benefits of early detection and prevention to a wider population by including those who have never smoked,” says Dr. Lam. 

In Toronto, Drs. Hon Leong, translational urology researcher at Sunnybrook Research Institute, and Benjamin Lok, clinician-scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, will lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers looking to improve our understanding of neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) – an aggressive cancer that is resistant to most treatments – with the goal of creating better diagnostic tools and novel, patient‐centred treatments. “In our minds, this is probably the most prestigious cancer research grant in the world.  When you first apply for this award, a sense of true responsibility surrounds the application and it gives us more meaning,” remarks Dr. Leong. “We are filled with deep admiration and a desire to do the most with the funding.” 

In Quebec, a team led by Dr. Gerardo Ferbeyre, principal scientist at CR-CHUM, aims to prevent chemotherapy resistance by killing senescent cells (cells that have entered a dormant state and have stopped dividing), which are thought to evade chemotherapy and contribute to cancer recurrence in the prostate and pancreas. “Rather than pursuing a single, all-encompassing method to eliminate tumour cells, we propose a two-step strategy that seeks to ‘knock-out’ tumour cells: we call it the ‘one-two punch therapy,’” says Dr. Ferbeyre.