Could a vaccine prevent cancer from spreading after surgery?

September 16, 2015

A researcher in Ottawa has received a grant from the Canadian Cancer Society to investigate whether a vaccine could stop cancer from spreading after surgery. Dr Rebecca Auer, a scientist and surgical oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital, received a $450,000 grant to study this promising new therapy. Appreciating the potential impact of this study, a group of cancer organizations – the Canadian Cancer Society, the National Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation (NPCCF), Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society and the QEII Foundation – have teamed up to co-fund this work.

The main treatment for many types of cancer is surgery. In fact, more than half of all people with cancer will have some type of surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible. But it can be challenging to find and remove all cancer cells. Unfortunately, sometimes cancer is more likely to spread after surgery, which is the problem that Dr Auer is addressing for pancreatic cancer.

The trauma of surgery can weaken the immune system, rendering it less able to detect and destroy any leftover cancer cells. “The immune system is in a constant battle with the cancer,” says Dr Auer, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “While surgery itself does not cause cancer to spread, it can lower immunity, giving any residual cancer cells a fighting chance to grow back and spread.”

“I am delighted that the NPCCF is partnering with the Canadian Cancer Society, Craig’s Cause and QEII Foundation in funding this innovative research for pancreatic cancer. Creating a vaccine that prevents cancer from spreading after surgery is very encouraging to those of us in the pancreatic cancer world,” says Betty Aldridge, founder and past president, National Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation.

Currently there is nothing being done routinely to boost a patient’s immune system to prevent cancer from spreading after surgery.

To tackle this problem, Dr Auer has developed a vaccine containing oncolytic (or cancer-killing) viruses. This type of vaccine is intended to outsmart cancer cells, which often trick the immune system and escape detection. Oncolytic viruses are designed to safely travel through the body to seek out and destroy cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact. At the same time, the viruses can be engineered to strengthen the immune system to mount a powerful attack on cancer cells. It is this 2-pronged approach that makes the vaccine so promising.

Dr Auer has chosen to focus her research on pancreatic cancer because, despite surgical removal, the cancer almost always comes back, leading to one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer. She is hopeful that her research will lead to new therapies within as little as 5 years. “It seems far-fetched, I know, to use viruses to fight cancer, but I believe there will be a paradigm shift soon,” she says. Patients treated with oncolytic viruses typically experience very few and mild flu-like side effects, she notes, compared with traditional chemotherapies.

“We are elated to support Dr Auer’s work. This research will not only offer patients enhanced treatment options, it will provide patients with hope. Hope is a powerful tool for those faced with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. We believe that pancreatic cancer research, such as Dr Auer’s, can and will alter pancreatic cancer outcomes in the near future,” says Stefanie Condon-Oldreive, founder, Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society.

Dr Auer’s research was made possible by an Innovation to Impact Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society. The Society funds only the most promising projects with the greatest potential for impact through its gold-standard review process renowned in Canada and worldwide.

“There’s an urgent need to change the outlook for pancreatic and other hard-to-treat cancers,” says Dr Siân Bevan, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society. “Investing in excellent Canadian science with our committed partners is allowing us to have a greater impact on pancreatic cancer survival rates sooner.”

About the Canadian Cancer Society
The Canadian Cancer Society is a national, community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is to eradicate cancer and enhance the quality of life of people living with cancer. Thanks to our donors and volunteers, the Society has the most impact, against the most cancers, in the most communities in Canada. Building on our progress, we are working with Canadians to change cancer forever. For more information, visit or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

About the National Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation
The National Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation, operating as Pancreatic Cancer Canada, is committed to creating hope and improving pancreatic cancer survival through awareness, education, patient support and research. To date, the Foundation has invested over $3 million into research at leading research institutions across Canada. It is the Foundation’s hope that information from these studies will lead to the development of cost-effective screening tests and effective treatment options, and ultimately, save lives! For more information, visit or call 1-888-726-2269.

About Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society
Founded by Stefanie Condon-Oldreive, in memory of her father who died 8 weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society has grown into a national charitable society, using 100% of donations to fund awareness, education, patient support and research initiatives. Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society raises significant funds for research through their Pancreatic Cancer Awareness walks and 5-km runs. Starting in September through to November, walks and runs will be held in 6 provinces, including Nova Scotia (Porter’s Lake), Ontario (Hamilton), New Brunswick (Saint John), PEI (Charlottetown), Newfoundland (St John’s) and Alberta. For more information or to donate, visit

About the QEII Foundation
Every day, donors to the QEII Foundation change the lives of Atlantic Canadians who visit the QEII Health Sciences Centre for treatment. Thanks to their generosity, the Foundation is able to strengthen and advance healthcare to ensure patients receive the best care possible. The Foundation raises funds to support research, professional education, equipment and technology, and community-based programs. Much-needed funds support primary care, such as treatment of chronic conditions, specialized care like heart surgery and cancer treatment, and the most advanced care, such as organ transplantation. Gifts to the a href="">QEII Foundation have the power to make a difference, now and in the future. Visit to learn more.

About The Ottawa Hospital
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.

For further information, please contact

Lois Ross
Senior Communications Specialist
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-737-8899 x73687
Cell: 613-297-8315