Information about the Award 

Barbara was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and studied Interior Design at the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1969. After graduating she moved to Vancouver and worked for a number of architectural practices specializing in the design of residential, institutional and health care projects. She carried out specialized research into interior and architectural materials for institutional and health care facilities and was responsible for detailed space and equipment planning, the co-ordination of materials, finishes and colours and the selection of furniture and furnishings for a number of residential, institutional, hospital, intermediate and extended health care facilities throughout British Columbia. Major projects that she worked on included Langley Memorial Hospital, Burnaby General Hospital, Mission Memorial Hospital, the Childrens’/Grace Hospital in Vancouver, extended care facilities in Mission, Langley and Summerland and a number of residential projects in the Lower Mainland. Barbara passed away in 2015 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

To continue her legacy, the Berthon family generously supports the Barbara Berthon Ovarian Cancer Prizes. The Barbara Berthon Ovarian Cancer Publication Prize of $1,000 is awarded annually to a trainee whose published work has made a significant discovery in advancing our understanding of ovarian cancer and/or impact on ovarian cancer control.

Jennifer’s Research : Arginine depletion therapy with ADI-PEG20 limits tumor growth in argininosuccinate synthase deficient ovarian cancer, including small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type

Ovarian cancer subtypes have distinct biology and could benefit from tailored treatment options. Some non-serous subtypes do not respond to current chemotherapy regimen and can be very aggressive.  

To identify possible treatment for non-serous subtypes, we studied the protein landscape of several ovarian cancer subtypes which profiled the level of up to 3 thousand proteins in each patient sample. We included the subtypes high grade serous ovarian cancer, clear cell ovarian cancer, endometrioid ovarian cancer, and small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type (SCCOHT). SCCOHT is a particularly devastating cancer as it typically affects women in their twenties and most women affected by this cancer do not live beyond two years. In this study, we found that a metabolic enzyme, argininosuccinate synthase (ASS1), was present at a lower amount in some non-serous subtypes, especially SCCOHT. ASS1 is an important enzyme that contributes to the production of arginine, an important amino acid for many cellular functions. The tumours having low levels of ASS1 will struggle to survive in environments lacking the amino acid arginine. This led us to study a small molecule agent (ADI-PEG20) which eliminates environmental arginine and show that it is effective in suppressing the growth of ovarian cancer cells lacking the ASS1 protein in a cell culture dish. Using a cell line, and patient tumour-derived tissue implanted into mice, we show that this agent can hinder the growth of SCCOHT tumour cells.  

This study establishes a potential therapeutic effect of the investigational agent ADI-PEG20 for the treatment of several uncommon ovarian cancer subtypes including the very rare and aggressive type – SCCOHT. Because this agent targets a deficiency in ASS1 found to be a common feature in several of the ovarian cancer types, there is an opportunity to conduct basket trials on very rare ovarian cancers such as SCCOHT where there are currently no effective treatments. Future work in the lab will focus on studying combination therapies with ADI-PEG20. We hope to bring these combinations to the clinic to provide more treatment options for these rare and aggressive ovarian cancer subtypes. 

About Jennifer 

Jennifer Ji is completing her MD/PhD degree at the university of British Columbia. She has always been passionate about translational oncology research and had conducted research at McGill, Harvard, and UBC during her undergrad. She recently completed her graduate studies under the supervision of Dr. David Huntsman. Her thesis research focused on the proteomic and metabolomic landscapes of clear cell ovarian cancer – an uncommon subtype of ovarian cancer. Late-stage clear cell ovarian cancer is resistant to conventional chemotherapy and effective targeted therapies are lacking. She hopes her thesis research will contribute to the understanding and therapeutic development of this disease. In her spare time, Jennifer enjoys illustration and visual arts. She volunteers at the reading bear society as an illustrator. 

What got you interested in this field? 

Knowing so many people were battling cancer, I was compelled to understand how these cells could be so deadly. I started my first oncology research experience in undergrad dreaming to contribute to curing cancer. My enthusiasm remains, but I soon realized the magnitude of this undertaking. My first research experience at McGill University studying leukemia sparked my interest in oncology research. I then studied the DNA damage response at Harvard University and the oncogenesis of clear cell sarcoma at the University of British Columbia. The research experiences highlighted the impact these malignancies have on peoples’ lives. As my interest in oncology research grew, this interest sparked my passion for medicine. When I started my MD/PhD degree at UBC, I knew I wanted to continue to conduct translational oncology research, so I completed my graduate studies with Dr. Huntsman’s group. Completing my graduate studies in this excellent training environment taught me valuable skills and approaches for answering research questions. With further training in medicine, I hope I will be well-equipped to identify more clinical questions to guide relevant translational research.  

Where do you see this research going and what are your next steps? 

I hope to see further clinical translation of ADIPEG20 in non-serous ovarian cancer subtypes. I think the important next steps would involve in-vitro and in-vivo models studying combination therapy including ADI-PEG20 and conventional chemotherapeutics. If these combinations show encouraging effects, it would be very exciting to initiate a basket clinical trial targeted at treating aggressive non-serous ovarian cancers. 

What do you like to do in your spare time?  

I enjoy going for walks and spending time with my family. I also like visual arts and paint when I have a rare moment to do so. I have been an illustrator for the reading bear society since 2015. Since then, I have illustrated “My bear book,” and “A visit to Dr. Bear,” aimed to help foster a love of reading in young children.