Five Canadian cancer research teams will share $22.4 million to expand their research into key areas of cancer treatment after winning the 2022 Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant (PPG) competition. Notably, three of the program project leaders are women and funding from two partner organizations is supporting two projects.
Three teams are based in BC and are led by Drs. Amina Zoubeidi (University of British Columbia, Vancouver Prostate Centre), Christian Steidl (BC Cancer) and Jennifer McAlpine (University of British Columbia). In Ontario, Drs. Gregory Czarnota and Rama Khokha are piloting teams at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. In total, there are two new program projects and three renewals funded in this competition, bringing the current number of New Frontiers Program Project Grant teams to 14.
“These teams have demonstrated that they are top researchers who are conducting leading-edge science to create really innovative projects that tackle some of the most challenging problems in cancer research,” says Dr. Jim Woodgett, TFRI President and Scientific Director. “Each team brings together outstanding researchers with complementary skills to investigate different aspects of a given area of cancer research to find improved outcomes for patients.”
The renewed program projects will each receive $6 million over six years, while the two new program projects will receive $2.2 million each over 4 years. TFRI’s share of the total funding provided is $18.4 million.
Both Ontario projects are supported by partners, with a private Vancouver-based foundation providing $2.9 million in renewal funding for the Czarnota project and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Cancer Research funding the new Khokha project with $1.1 million. The teams will focus on prostate, lymphatic, endometrial, skin and breast cancers. All were selected after a rigorous process that saw committees of international experts visit seven short-listed labs.
Three of the five selected teams are longstanding PPG holders whose funding is renewed through this competition.
Senior research scientist Dr. Amina Zoubeidi from the Vancouver Prostate Centre, succeeds Dr. Martin Gleave as the new project leader for this repeatedly funded PPG. Her team will investigate how some prostate cancer cells adapt to escape standard treatments. Better understanding this process, called cell plasticity, will help kickstart new clinical trials for treatment strategies to help patients with aggressive cancers. “There is an urgent need to improve outcomes for these patients. Working in teams accelerates our findings so this can happen quicker,” says Dr. Zoubeidi.
A team led by Dr. Christian Steidl, head of lymphoid cancer research at BC Cancer, also continues its ground-breaking PPG research with its funding renewal. The team will use novel technologies, including single-cell sequencing and imaging mass cytometry, to describe changes in tumours, cell by cell, and visualize the altered micro-architecture of lymph nodes. Dr. Steidl remarks, “I am optimistic in saying with the depth and breadth of information we can derive from these samples, we can build complete models of how lymphoma evolves, and we can translate these results into novel therapies to obtain higher cure rates and fewer side effects for patients.”
The third renewal team will be led by Dr. Gregory Czarnota, a radiation oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centres. This team’s research will focus on improving personalized cancer care by using novel ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods to enhance the efficacy of three common cancer treatments – immunotherapy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Focusing on breast cancer and melanoma, they will build on the previous novel and innovative work. “In our last PPG, we were able to use novel nanobubble technology to increase the efficacy of radiation therapy nearly sixty-fold,” says Dr. Czarnota. “The results we saw were incredible and we are now moving closer to starting larger clinical trials to bring these technologies to more patients.”
New program projects
Two brand new program projects are being added to TFRI’s PPG portfolio this year.
Dr. Rama Khokha, senior scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and colleagues will develop breast cancer interception therapies and precision-based, primary prevention options in high-risk patients. “Science can now identify high-risk patients effectively, but there are still few treatment options for these patients,” she says. “We are hoping to fill that gap.” Using leading technologies to measure the activity and expression of cells from a large repository of clinically well-defined, high-risk breast tissues, the team will examine pathways that are corrupted early on, with the goal of “unravelling biological processes that set the path for early cancer development and discovering ways of blocking them.”
With her newly funded team, Dr. Jessica McAlpine, a gynecological oncologist and translational researcher at BC Cancer, will investigate the role of molecular classifications in aggressive sub-sets of endometrial cancer. AI technology will help them to interpret pathologic images and patterns of disease to discern outcomes. This will make it easier to molecularly identify and classify patients who are at greater risk of cancer reoccurring and which surgery and treatments will work best. “Our hope is that through this program project, we’ll be able to find better ways to classify endometrial cancers so we can better personalize treatments, while also finding new ways to treat aggressive forms of the disease,” says Dr. McAlpine.