A revolution is underway in Canada’s health research landscape. The speed of discovery, convergence of disparate research fields and evolving health needs of Canadians are creating a number of significant, mutually reinforcing trends that are changing the way health research and knowledge translation are being conducted. Technological advances in health and health care research have tremendous potential for refining and expanding options for clinical practice and care, for improving understanding of human development and disease, and for conceptualizing novel upstream prevention pathways to improve population health. One of these is to pursue the development of immune-based prophylactic and therapeutic approaches for cancer. Chemo and radiotherapy are effective in reducing tumor size, but they unfortunately also affect healthy cells. The human immune system is a more accurate weapon, which has evolved to recognize and eliminate tumour cells. However, cancer cells employ a range of different strategies to confuse and thwart the immune system. Immunotherapies, which help stimulate the immune system to better identify specific cancer cells, show promising results and by all measures will revolutionize oncology practice.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and three out of four women who are sexually active are at risk of contracting the virus. In most women, it clears on its own, while for others it becomes a persistent infection which leads to precancerous lesions. An HPV infection can cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, mouth and throat cancer in women. Prophylactic vaccination induces an immune response which produces HPV-neutralizing antibodies that are capable of preventing initial infections; hence prevent the development of the cancers. To further develop the use of prophylactic vaccinations, GCI scientists in collaboration with the BC HPV Research Group are engaged in multiple studies dedicated to understanding HPV vaccine efficacy and the immunological response to this vaccine.
Cancer immunotherapy is based on the concept of stimulating the patient’s own immune system to recognize and destroy tumour cells. The main foot soldiers in the battle between immunity and cancer are T cells: small, powerful white blood cells that have the remarkable ability to kill cancer cells selectively, within minutes of contact. Immunotherapy is yielding remarkable outcomes for specific cancer patients, but the reality is that immunotherapy is highly effective against some cancers, but not against the majority. This incentive is making it an exciting and active area of oncology research today which may provide an option to existing treatments for a broader range of cancer types.
Adoptive Cell Therapy (ACT) is the treatment paradigm with the greatest potential and hence forms the basis of one of the research programs. Specifically, it is the development of personalized ACT approaches where patients are directly infused with their own T cells that have been conditioned or engineered to recognize and attack their cancer. The phenomenal breakthroughs of ACT against leukemia and melanoma are fuelling intense interest in expanding this approach to gynecologic cancers. Building on these successes, our team of internationally recognized Canadian researchers, in collaboration with partners across Canada and around the world, are creating an innovative portfolio of strategies that will take ACT to new heights, creating new treatment options for cancer patients.
A national research initiative, EPIC, will propel Canada to the forefront on cancer immunotherapy research. Building on prior investments in pre-clinical research, our proposal addresses the critical need for infrastructure to support immunotherapy research in the clinical setting. We will create three complementary, closely integrated research facilities:
1) Target Discovery and Vector Development: a state-of-the art facility that will use genomic and proteomic strategies to discover new molecular targets (antigens) for ACT and create novel strategies and tools for T cell engineering;
2) T Cell Engineering and Expansion: a cutting edge cell processing facility that will develop and implement innovative, cost-effective methods to generate safe and effective T cell products for use in clinical trials research; and
3) Immune Monitoring: a multi-platform suite for detailed profiling of immune responses in patients receiving new immunotherapies.
The goals of the EPIC initiative are to achieve rapid, cost effective implementation, increase the number of cancers that can be treated by ACT and enhancing the potency of ACT against solid tumours. EPIC will provide a complete developmental pipeline for these innovations that extends from lab-based research through to rigorous, first-in-human clinical trials, with the long-term goal of translating these concepts into standard of care for patients.