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Ontario invests $18.5M in cancer and stem cell research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa

June 11, 2009

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty today announced $18.5M in funding for cancer and stem cell research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa. The announcement was part of an event at The Ottawa Hospital in which Premier McGuinty announced a total of $94M in new investments across the province, awarded through the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and the Ontario Research Fund (ORF).

The OHRI-led projects include:

  • $10M for the Ontario Regional Biotherapeutics (ORBiT) program, led by Dr. John Bell
  • $4.2M for Novel Strategies for Enhancing Oncolytic Virus-mediated Cancer Therapy, led by Dr. Michael McBurney
  • $3.8M for Stem Cell Genomics Research, led by Dr. Michael Rudnicki
  • $426,000 for the Ontario Health Study’s Biorepository, led by Dr. Brent Zanke

“The work being done by our researchers is tremendously important,” said Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario. “First and foremost, this investment is about taking care of the health of our loved ones. But it is also about our ability to improve the quality of life of all Ontarians through the economic opportunities that research and innovation provide.”

“The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute is leading the way in developing a number of innovative new therapies, including oncolytic viruses for cancer and stem cell therapies for heart attack, multiple sclerosis and vision loss,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, CEO and Scientific Director, OHRI, Vice-President of Research, The Ottawa Hospital and Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa. “This new funding from the government of Ontario will greatly accelerate our work, so that we can get new therapies into the clinic more quickly and help people recover from devastating diseases.”

“Research is critical to our ability to identify emerging health issues, develop new cancer therapies and implement unique prevention approaches,” said Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa. “The Ontario Government understands that investments in research are vital to ensuring that the University of Ottawa continues to be ranked among the top for its research excellence and intensity.”

“Research is key to The Ottawa Hospital’s goal of providing high quality, sustainable health care to the people of Ottawa and Eastern Ontario,” said Dr. Jack Kitts, President and CEO, The Ottawa Hospital. “I would like to applaud the government of Ontario and Premier Dalton McGuinty in particular for strongly supporting both hospitals and hospital-based research institutes in Ontario.”

Details on OHRI-led projects:

1. Ontario Regional Biotherapeutics (ORBiT) program ($10M from the Ontario government through OICR)

Biotherapeutics is a new term used to describe therapies based on biological materials, including cells, genes and viruses. These biological therapies are much more complex than traditional pharmaceutical drugs and potentially much more powerful. They can be engineered in the laboratory to target diseased tissues on many fronts, without harming normal tissue. Cells and viruses can also replicate inside the body, so a small dose can be amplified many fold.

The Ontario Regional Biotherapeutics (ORBiT) program was founded in 2006 to develop a variety of biotherapeutics for the treatment of cancer. Led by Dr. John Bell at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and the University of Ottawa, the program brings together 14 scientists and clinicians from Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto. The $10M funding from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) will contribute to basic laboratory research on biotherapeutics, as well as six clinical trials in patients. One trial, which has just begun recruiting patients at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, will test an oncolytic virus which is designed to attack and destroy tumours. This virus, called JX-594, is based on the vaccine for smallpox virus. A previous study with this virus had very promising results, with 10 of 14 terminal cancer patients treated showing some response (published in Lancet Oncology). Other clinical trials will use cells from the immune system to attack cancers and prevent them from coming back. Others will examine different combinations of cells and viruses, sometimes along with surgery.

ORBiT investigators plan to use the results of these clinical trials to further refine their therapies in the laboratory, creating a cycle of discovery and testing that will accelerate their work and make new therapies available to patients more quickly. Laboratory research, manufacturing and clinical testing will all be done in the research hospital setting, at The Ottawa Hospital, the Hamilton Health Sciences Centre and Princess Margaret Hospital.

The development and testing of new therapies will also be accelerated by a partnership with Jennerex Biotherapeutics, a company founded in 2006 by Dr. John Bell and Dr. Harry Atkins at OHRI, along with Dr. David Stojdl from CHEO and Dr. David Kirn in San Francisco. Jennerex was launched with support from Ontario-based investors. Involving local corporate partners at an early stage is crucial to ensuring that the people of Ontario realize both the health and economic benefits of this research.

“Great progress has been made in cancer research over the last few decades, but in the clinic we are still using crude therapies with major side effects. Biotherapeutics are more targeted and potentially much more powerful,” said Dr. Bell. “I am excited about our upcoming clinical trials and the potential that they may help some people, but I also want to emphasize that we are still at the early stages of this research. We’re trying to develop a suite of new biological therapies for cancer, not a single magic bullet and it will take a lot of work. I would like to thank all the generous donors and the agencies who have supported or work over the years.”

People who are interested in participating in clinical trials should speak with their medical oncologist. The full eligibility criteria for the JX-594 trial at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre is available here.

ORBiT principal investigators include:
  • Dr. John Bell, Senior Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Professor of Medicine University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Harry Atkins, Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Program, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Rebecca Auer, Associate Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Surgical Oncology, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Laura Chow, Clinical Investigator, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Medical Oncology, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. David Stojdl, Scientist, Apoptosis Research Centre, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Jonathan Bramson, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University
  • Dr. Brian Lichty, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University
  • Dr. Yonghong Wan, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University
  • Dr. Ronan Foley, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University; Director, Stem Cell Laboratory and Head, Malignant Hematology Diagnostic Service, Hamilton Health Sciences Centre
  • Dr. Armand Keating, Epstein Chair in Cell Therapy and Transplantation, Professor of Medicine, Director, Division of Hematology, University of Toronto; Director, Cell Therapy Program, Princess Margaret Hospital
  • Dr. Li Zhang, Professor, Departments of Lab Medicine & Pathobiology, Immunology, University of Toronto; Senior Scientist, Toronto General Research Institute, University Health Network
  • Dr. Pam Ohashi, Co-Director, Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research; Director, Immune Therapy Program and Senior Scientist, Division of Signaling Biology, Ontario Cancer Institute/Princess Margaret Hospital, University Health Network; Professor, Departments of Medical Biophysics and Immunology, University of Toronto
  • Dr. Jeffrey Medin, Senior Scientist, Ontario Cancer Institute and Toronto General Research Institute; Professor, Department of Medical Biophysics and the Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto
  • Dr. Andrea McCart, Affiliated Scientist, Toronto General Research Institute; Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Toronto; Surgical Oncologist, Mount Sinai Hospital

2. Novel Strategies for Enhancing Oncolytic Virus-mediated Cancer Therapy ($4.2M from the Ontario government through the Ontario Research Fund)

Dr. Michael McBurney, Director of the OHRI’s Cancer Therapeutics Program and Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, has been awarded a $4.2M grant from the Ontario Research Fund to investigate strategies to enhance oncolytic viruses cancer therapy. This grant will support a collaborative program at OHRI involving nine scientists and clinicians. Together, the researchers will test a variety of oncolytic viruses in different laboratory tumour models to try to see which viruses work best for which cancers, what the best mode of delivery is, and whether there is benefit from combining oncolytic viruses with other therapies. The eventual goal of this research is to refine oncolytic virus therapy and make it more customized. For example, the group hopes that one day it may be possible to take a sample of a patient’s tumour before treatment, test it in the laboratory to find out which virus it is most susceptible to, and then use that virus as a treatment in the clinic. This project is complementary to the ORBiT program led by Dr. John Bell.

“Here at the OHRI Centre for Cancer Therapeutics, we’ve been particularly successful in getting basic scientists and clinicians to work together to develop new therapies and answer important clinical questions. The oncolytic virus program is a prime example of this,” said Dr. McBurney. “This new funding from the government of Ontario will allow us to expand this research and evaluate a variety of oncolytic viruses in different types of cancer, so that hopefully we can developed more targeted and customized cancer treatments.”

Investigators on this project include:
  • Dr. Michael McBurney, Director, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. John Bell, Senior Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Professor of Medicine University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Harry Atkins, Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Program, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Rebecca Auer, Associate Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Surgical Oncology, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Johanne Weberpals, Associate Investigator, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Jim Dimitroulakos, Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, Senior Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Ian Lorimer, Senior Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Glenwood Goss, Clinical Investigator, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Medical Oncology, The Ottawa Hospital; Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Laura Chow, Clinical Investigator, Cancer Therapeutics Program, OHRI; Physician, Medical Oncology, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa

Private sector partners include Jennerex Biotherapeutics, Matrix Advanced Solutions and Atreus Pharmaceutical.

3. Stem Cell Genomics Research ($3.8M from the Ontario government through the Ontario Research Fund)

Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Director of OHRI’s Sprott Center for Stem Cell Research and Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, has been awarded a $3.8M grant from the Ontario Research Fund. The grant will support Ontario’s leading role in the International Regulome Consortium (IRC), a third generation genomics project that involves 38 institutions from 12 countries working together to decipher how stem cells are regulated at the genetic level. This research is essential to learning how to control stem cells, so that we can harness their power to regenerate and repair damaged organs and tissues. Researchers at OHRI are already working on stem cell therapies for heart attack, stroke, multiple sclerosis, vision loss and spinal cord injury. The research done through IRC will provide essential knowledge that could help refine these therapies and develop new, even more powerful ones.

Dr. Michael Rudnicki is the Director of the International Regulome Consortium as well as the Scientific Director of Canada’s Stem Cell Network. Invitrogen is an important corporate partner on this project.

“Canada is recognized around the world for its leadership in stem cell research, and in the International Regulome Consortium in particular,” said Dr. Rudnicki. “The government of Ontario has been very supportive of this effort. This funding will help pave the way for Ontario to take a lead role in the development of the next generation of stem cell therapies for devastating diseases.”

Investigators on this project include:
  • Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Senior Scientist and Director of the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, OHRI; Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa; Director, International Regulome Consortium; Scientific Director, Stem Cell Network
  • Dr. Theodore Perkins, Scientist, Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, OHRI
  • Dr. Mads Kaern, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Physics, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Marjorie Brand, Scientist, Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, OHRI; Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Lynn Megeney, Senior Scientist, Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, OHRI; Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa
  • Dr. Lisheng Wang, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Ottawa

4. Ontario Health Study ($426,000 from the Ontario government through OICR)

The Ontario Health Study is a key part of the Canadian National Biobank, which aims to collect biological samples from 300,000 Canadians and correlate biological, genetic, social and environmental information from each person with information about their health and the diseases they develop over the next 50 years. This will contribute to a greater understanding of the causes of cancer and other common diseases. This new funding from the Ontario government will help build the facilities to store the biological samples. This part of the study is led by Dr. Brent Zanke, Scientist at OHRI, Oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. Key partners in the project include the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Cancer Care Ontario and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.

“This biobank will be an incredibly valuable resource for researchers across Canada,” said Dr. Zanke. “It will allow us to determine which factors are most important in contributing to cancer and other diseases later in life and this could lead to new approaches for prevention and treatment.”

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with the University's Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. The OHRI includes more than 1,300 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. www.ohri.ca

About the University of Ottawa
The University of Ottawa is committed to research excellence and encourages an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge creation, which attracts the best academic talent from across Canada and around the world. www.uottawa.ca

Media contacts
Jennifer Paterson
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
613-798-5555 x 73325
613-614-5253 (cell)
jpaterson@ohri.ca

Julie Tanguay
Media relations officer
University of Ottawa
613-562-5800 x 3137
613-724-8290 (cell)
jtanguay@uOttawa.ca