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Research Highlight | December 10, 2020

Two New Frontiers Program Project Grant teams receive $10.9 million for research excellence, expansion to new key areas

Two outstanding teams in Ontario will receive $10.9 million over the next six years to advance research into key areas of cancer development after being awarded a 2020 Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant (PPG).

The teams, led by Dr. Jeff Wrana and Dr. John Dick, will use the funding to dive deep into the unique biology of cancer cells with the hopes of finding specific vulnerabilities that could be exploited through targeted therapies.

The projects were selected after a rigorous process that saw a committee of international experts virtually visit five short-listed labs.

“These teams have demonstrated that they are top researchers who are able to think outside the box to create really innovative projects that tackle some of the most challenging problems in cancer research,” says Dr. Victor Ling, president and scientific director at the Terry Fox Research Institute. “They bring together leading researchers with complementary skills to investigate different aspects of a given area of cancer research to find solutions that could yield positive results for patients in the short term.”

Familiar faces, innovative approaches

Both research teams have a proven track-record in cancer research and have received previous funding from the TFRI.  They will equally split the total funds to continue to build upon previous discoveries and to begin to transition their groundbreaking research from the lab to the clinic.

The team led by Dr. John Dick, a senior scientist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, will search for ways to exploit specific vulnerabilities in cancer stem cells (CSCs), a group of cells that the team has found to be the cellular originators of cancer. CSCs often survive chemotherapy, leading to cancer recurrence in multiple tumour types.

“Like a weed, cancer can only be killed if the root is removed entirely,” says Dr. Dick. “This means finding ways to attack CSCs. By doing so we hope to be able to reduce therapy failure and increase patient survival.” The team will focus on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, colon cancer, and glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Dr. Jeff Wrana, a senior investigator at Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) at Sinai Health, says his team will expand their research into the “Hippo” Pathway, a mechanism that controls tissue size and has been found to be deregulated in most cancer types.

“Over the last three years we have come to learn a great deal about this pathway, to the point that we now understand the inner workings of the Hippo system, and are in a position to begin to identify and optimize therapeutics to shut the pathway off,” says Dr. Wrana, whose team will focus on two tumour types: head and neck cancers and triple-negative breast cancer.

Learn more about the research of the 2020 Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant winners:

The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant on the Determinants of stemness that underlie high risk or relapse disease; Project leader: Dr. John Dick (Princess Margaret Cancer Centre); Award: $5.45M; Project Duration: 2020-2026.

The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in Targeting the Hippo Signaling Network in Cancer; Project leader: Dr. Jeffrey Wrana (Lunenfeld‐Tanenbaum Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital); Award: $5.45M; Project Duration: 2020-2026