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The new cancer treatments being discovered today can sound like science fiction. Genetically engineered viruses that target individual cancers. Personalized cancer vaccines created from excised tumours. These are real treatments being developed at The Ottawa Hospital, one of the largest hospital-based research institutes in North America.

These treatments fall into a larger class known as immunotherapies, where the body’s own immune system is enlisted in the fight against cancer. For this class of therapies specifically, Ottawa has become a global hub of research. Arguably, there is one man responsible for this. “A lot of the research in biotherapies here at The Ottawa Hospital was started by Dr. John Bell,” says Dr. Rebecca Auer, a surgical oncologist and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “He’s an incredibly passionate scientist as well as an outstanding mentor and collaborator. Much of the reason why Ottawa has become the national center of excellence for biotherapeutics is because of him.”

Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer

Dr. Auer’s research is in the field of oncolytic viruses, a type of immunotherapy in which viruses are selected or engineered to selectively replicate in and kill cancer cells. “When a cell becomes a cancer cell, it makes a deal with the devil,” says Dr. Auer. “It has to lose some things in exchange for being able to grow so fast and in such an unregulated way. One of the things it loses is the ability to fight off viral infections. One of the most interesting effects of oncolytic viruses is that the virus doesn’t need to kill all the cancer all on its own. Cancer cells hide from our immune system in various ways, and sometimes infecting them with a virus is enough to expose the cancer to the immune system and allow the body’s natural defenses to join the fight.”

New therapies like this, at all stages in the research pipeline, are promising a new paradigm for how we think about cancer treatment. “What I think is so exciting about immunotherapy is that, whereas cancer treatment breakthroughs in the past have pushed the survival curve further along, immunotherapy is one of the first to begin curing people who otherwise never would have been cured,” says Dr. Auer. “For those people, it’s a miracle. And it’s a miracle from within their own body, where their own immune system is unleashed to kill their cancer for them.”

Discoveries reaching patients more quickly

It can be years between a promising therapy first being reported in the news and it being clinically applicable. The good news, however, is that the pipeline is both filling up faster with new ideas and also growing shorter. “The average timeline from the first discovery at the bench to the first patient trial used to be something like 20 years,” says Dr. Auer. “But what’s interesting is that, as our understanding of cancer biology and the immune system has accelerated, so has our ability to explore cancer. The first human genome sequencing for example took 13 years and cost a billion dollars. Now it can be done in just over 24 hours for a few thousand dollars. So, the pace of progress is much faster now than it was a decade ago.”

We are entering a golden age of new cancer immunotherapies, and it’s scientists like Dr. Auer and Dr. Bell at The Ottawa Hospital who are bringing them to us. As Canadians, we should be proud that the scientists of our nation’s capital are at the forefront of this crucial line of research.

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