Patients a “source of strength” for The Ottawa Hospital’s new head of cancer research

April 19, 2018

Meet Dr. Rebecca Auer. Some days she wears scrubs and removes tumours in the operating room. Other days she wears a lab coat and investigates the secrets of cancer cells. In between all this, she runs clinical trials, trains students and residents, participates on international committees and raises three young boys with her husband. Now this innovative surgeon-scientist has another job: leading more than 300 cancer researchers at The Ottawa Hospital.

When asked what inspires her, she says patients always come first.

“My patients are a great source of strength for me. They approach tough situations with grace, gratitude and resilience. They make me realize how incredible humans are. They remind me what matters the most every day.”

Amazing colleagues and a world-class hospital provide inspiration too, she says.

Of course, inspiration doesn’t go very far without hard work, something that Dr. Auer learned early on.

“I never really felt I had any natural ability, but what I do have is tenacity,” she said. “When I fall down, I get back up.”

That tenacity has more than paid off. The Ottawa native was named the top medical student at Queen’s University in 2000, the top master’s student in science at the University of Ottawa in 2004, the top resident researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in 2007 and Distinguished Young Professor at the University of Ottawa in 2013.

Since starting her own research laboratory at The Ottawa Hospital in 2007, Dr. Auer has focused on the interplay between cancer, surgery and the immune system, and has made many important discoveries.

“Surgery is very effective in removing solid tumours,” she said. “However, we’re now realizing that, tragically, surgery can also supress the immune system in a way that makes it easier for any remaining cancer cells to persist and spread to other organs.”

Dr. Auer’s team has discovered how this happens and they are now testing different strategies in the lab and in patients to modify the immune system and prevent cancer from coming back after surgery.

In addition to her role at The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Auer is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and holds a Tier 2 Clinical Research Chair in Perioperative Cancer Therapeutics from the University’s Faculty of Medicine. She is also a key member of BioCanRx, a network of cancer immunotherapy and oncolytic virus researchers based at The Ottawa Hospital. She collaborates widely with laboratory scientists, surgeons, oncologists, nurses and epidemiologists.

“I’m really excited to take on this new role because I see an opportunity to bring people together, build bridges and accelerate the translation of our research into benefits for patients,” said Dr. Auer. “The Ottawa Hospital is already leading the world in several areas of cancer research and there is great potential for further growth.”

“Dr. Auer is an outstanding addition to our leadership team,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “Her tenacity, collaborative spirit and passion for her patients and science will be a huge asset as our researchers continue to redesign the future of cancer care.”

“Dr. Auer’s research could change how cancer is treated around the world,” said Dr. Virginia Roth, Chief of Staff at The Ottawa Hospital. “We are fortunate to have Dr. Auer inspire our young physicians and researchers at a time of such exciting change and discovery in this field.”

Milestones in cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital

· 1995: First dedicated cancer research labs open at The Ottawa Hospital, General Campus, under leadership of Dr. Michael McBurney.

· 2000: Dr. John Bell discovers that a virus called VSV can kill cancer cells without harming normal cells, sparking a whole new field of cancer research, called oncolytic viruses.

· 2007: Dr. Derek Jonker leads an international clinical trial that results in worldwide adoption of a new personalized therapy for colorectal cancer.

· 2008: The Ottawa Hospital establishes Canada’s first cardiac oncology research and care program, under the leadership of Dr. Susan Dent.

· 2011: New Centre for Innovative Cancer Research doubles cancer research lab space at The Ottawa Hospital and allows the hospital to manufacture cancer-fighting viruses for clinical trials around the world.

· 2012: Dr. Mark Clemons discovers that as breast cancer spreads to other organs, it often changes at the molecular level, making it more or less susceptible to various treatments. This discovery changes treatment for metastatic breast cancer around the world.

· 2014: BioCanRx, Canada’s network for cancer immunotherapy research, opens at The Ottawa Hospital

· 2014: Dr. Dean Fergusson and Dr. Mark Clemons launch the world-leading REaCT clinical trial program to quickly and efficiently compare standard cancer treatments.

· 2015: Dr. John Bell and Dr. Derek Jonker team up to launch the first clinical trial in the world using two viruses to attack cancer cells with a specific genetic mutation.

· 2016: An international clinical trial led by Dr. Glen Goss shows that 70 percent of patients with a certain kind of lung cancer respond to a new targeted therapy. Based on this research, the therapy is now available as a standard treatment.

· 2018: Dr. Rebecca Auer appointed head of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital, leading a team of 83 core scientists and investigators and 228 trainees and research staff. These researchers are undertaking 200 cancer clinical trials and hundreds of other cancer research projects.

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The Ottawa Hospital: Inspired by research. Driven by compassion

The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s largest learning and research hospitals with over 1,100 beds, approximately 12,000 staff and an annual budget of over $1.2 billion. Our focus on research and learning helps us develop new and innovative ways to treat patients and improve care. As a multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, we deliver specialized care to the Eastern Ontario region, but our techniques and research discoveries are adopted around the world. We engage the community at all levels to support our vision for better patient care. See for more information about research at The Ottawa Hospital.

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The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities—our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

Media Contact

Jennifer Ganton
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 73325
Cell: 613-614-5253