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Research Highlight | April 20, 2015

Pancreatic cancer loses viral defences when talking with supporting cells

Ottawa, ON -- Terry Fox funded researchers in Ottawa have found a way to make pancreatic cancer cells more vulnerable to cancer-killing viruses, known as oncolytic viruses. In a paper published today in Nature Medicine, the scientists describe how they can exploit the communication, or cross-talk, between pancreatic cancer and a specific cell type that supports the tumour. They found that this cross-talk weakens the ability of both cell types to fight off cancer-fighting viruses.

The cross-talking cells are genetically normal cells that the cancer has conditioned to support the tumour. This conditioning by the tumour actually makes the cells more susceptible to virus infection, compared to their normal counterparts. In turn, the cells secrete a protein called FGF2 that makes the tumours more susceptible to virus infection, making it possible to kill the tumour.

2015-04-20 Bell-IlkowDr. John Bell, left, with lead author postdoctoral fellow Dr. Carolina Ilkow.

This research is part of the Terry Fox Program Project Grant on the Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo) and has been funded by The Terry Fox Foundation (TFF) for over 10 years. These latest findings by the team follow a recent award of $7 million from TFF to conduct the pre-clinical work needed before progressing to trials in humans.

Pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest of cancers, killing approximately 4,400 Canadians every year. Only 6 per cent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live longer than five years.

"Our findings could be important for patients in a couple of ways," said Dr. John Bell, the study’s author, project leader of the Terry Fox Program Project Grant on the Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo) and a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. "First, they could help us predict which cancer patients will be more likely to respond to oncolytic virus treatment.”

"More importantly, we saw improved outcomes in tumours treated with an oncolytic virus that expressed FGF2," added Dr. Bell. "Combined with the fact that the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer has been stuck in the single digits, we are motivated to move this knowledge into clinical testing."

The experiments for this paper, whose lead author is postdoctoral fellow Dr. Carolina Ilkow, were conducted with mouse models and cells from human patients with pancreatic cancer. The findings require further study before they can be translated into a clinical trial.

"This discovery is so encouraging to me, even though I fully realize it's still at an early stage," said Sindy Hooper, an Ottawa mother of two and triathlete who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2013. "For me, research progress like this means hope, and that hope helps me live with the stark reality of my diagnosis."

One of the potential benefits of oncolytic virus therapy is that it is far less toxic than standard chemotherapy. Oncolytic viruses attack and kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. The expected side effects of oncolytic virus treatments being tested in clinical trials are usually a mild fever or flu-like symptoms that last a day or two.

More information

The paper "Reciprocal cellular cross-talk within the tumor microenvironment promotes oncolytic virus activity" was published online on April 20, 2015, by Nature Medicine.

Read the full press release by the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

Watch Dr. John Bell talk about the Terry Fox Program Project Grant on the Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo).


About TFF
The Terry Fox Foundation maintains the vision and principles of Terry Fox while raising money for cancer research through the annual Terry Fox Run, Terry’s CAUSE on Campus, National School Run Day and other fundraising initiatives. To date, over $650 million has been raised worldwide for cancer research in Terry Fox's name. The first Terry Fox Run was held in 1981, with The Terry Fox Foundation being created in 1988. Its national headquarters are located in Chilliwack, BC and it has offices in 9 provinces.

About TFRI
Launched in October 2007, The Terry Fox Research Institute is the brainchild of The Terry Fox Foundation and today functions as its research arm. TFRI seeks to improve significantly the outcomes of cancer research for the patient through a highly collaborative, team-oriented, milestone-based approach to research that will enable discoveries to translate quickly into practical solutions for cancer patients worldwide. TFRI collaborates with over 50 cancer hospitals and research organizations across Canada. TFRI headquarters are in Vancouver, BC.

For more information, contact:
Kelly Curwin, Chief Communications Officer
Terry Fox Research Institute
Office: 604-675-8223; Cell: 778-237-8158