The Next Generation
OICR supports many young researchers who are working hard in the fight against cancer.
Dr. Lili Aslostovar and Dr. Allison Boyd
Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a type of blood cancer that inhibits the body from properly producing normal blood cells in the bone marrow, causing severe infections and often lethal outcomes for patients. Despite decades of research, failure of therapies remains a challenge for doctors and patients and survival rates remain far too low. Now researchers in the lab of Dr. Mick Bhatia at McMaster’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute (SCC-RI) in Hamilton are looking at the issue of how and why AML returns in patients who have received successful treatment – and coming up with new therapeutic approaches that will help healthy bone marrow tackle and destroy cancerous cells.
Ontario researchers have long been leaders in AML research, from the original discovery of cancer stem cells in Toronto to the development of living model systems that allow scientists to investigate the complexities of leukemia in a biological context. Drs. Lili Aslostovar and Allison Boyd were both inspired to pursue cancer research in Ontario for this reason and by the Bhatia lab’s unique research model, which combines clinical investigation and sophisticated experimental models of human leukemic disease. Coming from diverse scientific and cultural backgrounds, Aslostovar and Boyd have a shared passion to make an impact in the clinic, and to address challenges of this magnitude, they both agree that ‘two heads are better than one.'
“The same motivation drives us both,” says Aslostovar. “We want to do basic science, but ensure we investigate real clinical challenges. We aim to help improve patient outcomes by using new systems that authentically recreate problems patients face in the clinic.”
Aslostovar and Boyd were initially developing independent research projects when they realized their individual findings were converging on similar challenging questions: Why does therapy seem to work at first but disease comes back? How do leukemic cells interact with the cells in their surrounding environment during therapy? Seeing an opportunity to accelerate their work by combining their research strengths, they then partnered up to answer these questions together.
Today, Aslostovar and Boyd are postdoctoral fellows in the Bhatia Lab, where they are examining leukemia in animal models to advance the understanding of the bone marrow ecosystem and provide a new way to tackle leukemic stem cells – the root drivers of the disease.
Together with a team of other lab members and clinical collaborators, they investigated the interactions between healthy blood cells and leukemic cancer cells and identified the important role of bone marrow fat cells in supporting normal development of blood. This led to a new therapeutic strategy to modulate the environment of the bone marrow and protect it against leukemia, published in Nature Cell Biology in October 2017.
With support from OICR, these findings continue to advance towards clinical development. Capitalizing on the momentum they have gained by working together, they are now investigating why and how AML returns after chemotherapy. They both feel fortunate to participate in the research process from initial discovery through to clinical translation, which is a rare opportunity for researchers in training. They credit their success to the culture of collaboration fostered in the Bhatia lab.
“When you hit obstacles and experiments fail, it’s strong communication and collaboration that get you through,” Boyd says. “Cancer research motivates us both, but it’s our unique perspectives working together that help us innovate and move toward patient impact.”
Dr. Janet Jull
Indigenous people and communities experience significant health inequities relative to the general Canadian population, including disproportionately increasing rates of cancer and barriers to access health services. Dr. Janet Jull, Assistant Professor at Queen’s University and Affiliate Investigator at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, is partnering with Indigenous groups to find new ways of creating and sharing knowledge for the improved health and well-being of Indigenous people.
“Cancer affects everyone. It knows no bounds,” says Jull. “But does our cancer care system and research work for all those affected?”
Jull, an occupational therapist turned health services researcher, has recognized that the delivery of care from current western healthcare models often undermines Indigenous peoples’ health and wellbeing. These western care models use knowledge systems and care practices that may not align with the values of Indigenous groups. Jull takes a unique approach to identify and implement solutions to these challenges. She works in partnership with patients and families, health care providers, and policy and decision makers to diminish inequalities in the cancer care system through shared decision making and the co-creation of knowledge.
Jull has always been involved with improving health and wellbeing. She became an occupational therapist because she had a keen interest in fair and equitable care. Early in her career, while living and working with families in Arctic communities, she realized that despite decades of health research and innovations in healthcare practice, the western healthcare model was not working for Indigenous people living in Canada. She came to understand that health disparities exist because of deep-seated social, historical and political factors.
Jull sought to better understand these disparities and barriers. Throughout her PhD studies at the University of Ottawa, she used a strengths-based approach – working in partnership with those affected by the healthcare system (patients, families and communities) and those leading the system (healthcare providers and policy decision makers). Together, the collaborative team identified new ways to promote culturally safe health care and health equity.
As a postdoctoral fellow – and now Affiliate Investigator – at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and University of Ottawa, Jull continues to work with Indigenous community partners, care providers and leaders. They co-create, develop and test shared decision-making tools and strategies for cancer care. Their work, funded in part by OICR’s Knowledge Translation Network Grant, aims to enhance patient participation in cancer care decision making, and foster the partnership between patients and their healthcare providers.
“People need to be able to be full participants in their own healthcare decisions with their healthcare providers,” Jull says. “That is what our work aims to achieve.”
All of the strategies that Jull promotes have been developed in full collaboration with the various stakeholders affected. This includes both patients and providers within the cancer care system. Together, they are implementing their new strategies, co-creating knowledge and bringing the benefits of their knowledge to help Inuit, Métis and First Nations people living in Canada. Jull, in partnership, will continue to work towards the creation of a cancer care system that is welcoming and inclusive for all.
Dr. Marie-Claude Bourgeois-Daigneault
Cancer cells can hide from the body’s immune system by making themselves indistinguishable from healthy cells. Dr. Marie-Claude Bourgeois-Daigneault is discovering new and non-traditional ways to activate the body’s immune system against these disguised tumour cells and develop new treatment strategies that have fewer side effects for patients.
While pursuing a PhD at the University of Montreal, Bourgeois-Daigneault attended a lecture held by a visiting researcher, Dr. John Bell, who was leader of OICR’s ORBiT Program and now co-leads OICR’s Immuno-oncology Translational Research Initiative. He presented cutting-edge research on oncolytic viruses – using them to deliver treatment directly to cancer cells. Bourgeois-Daigneault, an immunologist by training, says she was fascinated by his approach. “Oncolytic viruses had the potential to transform cancer therapy and I wanted to help,” she says. Inspired by Bell’s lecture, she decided to focus her research on the field of immuno-oncology.
“Not only is the science of immuno-oncology fascinating,” Bourgeois-Daigneault says, “The potential for it to improve quality of life for cancer patients is incredible.”
With a passion for cancer research and strong foundations in immunology, Bourgeois-Daigneault was a natural fit in Bell’s laboratory. She joined the Bell Lab at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute shortly after completing her PhD in 2013. It was the perfect environment for Bourgeois-Daigneault to grow as an up-and-coming principal investigator. There, she had opportunities to mentor others while pursuing her independent research projects. Over the past five years as a postdoctoral fellow, Bourgeois-Daigneault mentored more than 12 students while also publishing 14 articles. She perfected her ability to balance her own research objectives while designing complementary projects for graduate students.
Bourgeois-Daigneault’s principal long-term research project investigated why aggressive breast cancers don’t respond well to certain immunotherapeutic approaches called immune checkpoint inhibitors, or ICIs. She discovered a new effective way to engage the immune system to respond to ICI treatment using an oncolytic virus, the Maraba rhabdovirus. In mouse models, her combination approach boosted cure rates up to 90 per cent, which is significantly higher than ICI treatment alone. These promising findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, present a new strategy to treat aggressive breast cancer with fewer side effects relative to traditional treatments like chemotherapy. The Maraba oncolytic virus is currently being tested in clinical studies for patients with various cancer types.
Now, Bourgeois-Daigneault feels well prepared to move on and establish her own lab to investigate oncolytic virotherapies. “The Bell Lab has trained me to be an independent principal investigator,” Bourgeois-Daigneault says. “I have fostered strong relationships with collaborators and grown tremendously as a mentor, all while making meaningful progress in research.”
As she reflects on her career so far, Bourgeois-Daigneault is especially grateful to have been able to see the impact of her work first hand. Over the past year, she was invited to attend patient support group meetings as the scientific liaison, an opportunity often reserved for senior principal investigators. There, she explained new immunotherapies to patients and caregivers. “Meeting with patients is a reminder that cancer research is a privilege,” Bourgeois-Daigneault says. “If you have the chance to do this work, you have the chance to make a difference.”
If cancer researchers could eliminate repetitive, routine tasks from their workday, they would gain more time to investigate deeper, more meaningful cancer research questions. Automation of computational tasks can help researchers perform higher quality scientific research at a faster pace – meaning patients can benefit from research sooner.
Cancer genomics research depends on agile and reliable data production infrastructure that can plan, collect, process, analyze and maintain vast quantities of valuable research data. Morgan Taschuk, Senior Manager of the Genome Sequence Informatics team at OICR, has made it her goal to enable high-quality cancer research by improving data production systems.
“My team’s work allows researchers to focus on what they’re highly qualified to do – ask profound research questions and drive cancer breakthroughs,” Taschuk says. “So, we make massive and elaborate data analysis tasks as simple and efficient as possible.”
Cancer genomics researchers often ask questions that require deep exploration of large sequencing datasets. The rapidly evolving field demands flexible data production systems that can quickly be adjusted to accommodate new queries. This presents a challenge because in addition to requiring flexibility, researchers require stable production systems to make reproducible discoveries supported by high-quality data analysis. To this end, Taschuk and her team work to improve both the flexibility and stability of their data analysis pipeline infrastructure to support OICR’s genomics research projects.
Prior to joining OICR, Taschuk completed her master’s degree in bioinformatics at Newcastle University in the U.K. She was attracted to Ontario’s growing momentum in cancer genomics. “OICR has an international reputation of excellence in bioinformatics and cancer research, which is what attracted me here in the first place,” Taschuk says. “But cancer is a complex and serious problem, and that is what keeps me committed to my work day in and day out.”
The vast majority of OICR’s genomics data run through systems that Taschuk’s team has designed or managed. They automate the systems that take care of approximately two petabytes of data, the equivalent of 30 years of HD video. This means that her behind-the-scenes work over the past six years has supported dozens of research projects and hundreds of published findings.
Taschuk’s systems have not only built OICR’s informatics capacity, but they benefit the broader research community. She is an avid proponent of sharing ideas and reducing redundant research efforts through open source, open data and open science. She recognizes the importance of releasing data, methods and knowledge to expedite innovation and accelerate benefits for patients. In the next stage of her work, Taschuk will continue to disseminate her group’s tools and knowledge to other institutes and research teams, allowing them to better automate their analysis pipelines and accelerate their research.
“Everything we do to accelerate research helps more people with cancer get the treatment that they need,” Taschuk says. “Patients and future patients with cancer depend on our research to provide new solutions. Our systems help discover those solutions faster.”