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Harnessing the power of the immune system has led to a quantum shift in cancer care. In this rapidly expanding research field, The Ottawa Hospital is leading with a laser focus.

“Instead of targeting the tumour itself, immunotherapy utilizes the immune system and recruits it to attack the cancer,” says Dr. Rebecca Auer, a cancer surgeon and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital. 

“What’s really exciting is that when it works, the treatment effects are long-lasting and that means the likelihood of a cure is much higher,” adds Dr. Auer. “Much like a vaccination, immunotherapy can help you develop long-lasting immunity to a certain cancer.” 

 Immunotherapy has had striking results, particularly for people with advanced melanoma and lung cancer, but many researchers believe this is just the beginning. In particular, The Ottawa Hospital is leading the way is in the development of biotherapy — a newer kind of immunotherapy that involves treating people with complex biological materials like cells and viruses, rather than traditional drugs.

“Biotherapeutics could be the revolution that makes immunotherapy work for many more kinds of cancer,” says Dr. Auer. “At The Ottawa Hospital, we’re developing a unique translational platform so we can quickly move these therapies from lab discovery, through clinical manufacturing, to cancer patients.”

Immunotherapy is forming a new pillar alongside the traditional foundations of oncology. It’s a fundamental philosophical shift in the way we think about cancer, and it’s bringing new hope to Canadian patients.

“Canada is leading the world in many areas of cancer research specifically because the public is involved and invested.”

Dr. Michael Ong, Medical Oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital

Dan’s story

In 2015, Dan Collins was 62 years old, at the top of his career, and in good health, until a persistent painful lump on the back of his neck sent him to the doctor. One needle biopsy later, Dan had an appointment with a surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital where he learned that he had stage 4 melanoma, and that it had already metastasized to his lungs and stomach. 

“The diagnosis was shocking,” Dan recalls. “I had a brand-new granddaughter, and my biggest fear was that she would never know who I was.”

Dan underwent surgery and other traditional treatments, with minimal success before Ottawa Hospital oncologist Dr. Michael Ong suggested immunotherapy. 

“With metastatic melanoma specifically, it used to be that only 25% of patients would be alive after one year,” says Dr. Ong. “Now first-year survival is more like 85%. We’re seeing trial reports that are showing 40%–50% of patients still alive even five years out.”

A new lease on life for patients who once had no hope

Today, Dan shows zero signs of cancer. He’s returned to work, and he’s had the blessing of being part of his granddaughter’s life. “She’s a little doll, and she and I are just the best of friends now,” he says. “I wish everyone with cancer would have the same opportunity to watch their family grow. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Dan’s story is just one voice in a chorus of Canadians who would have been silenced if not for groundbreaking research at Canadian hospitals. “Dan isn’t unique any longer,” says Dr. Ong. “He’s not an outlier, he’s just one example among many who are benefiting in a big way.”

There’s more hard work ahead

If future generations are going to see these miracles extended to an ever-wider array of cancers, it’s critical that we continue to support research hospitals like The Ottawa Hospital. 

“This exciting research is happening at The Ottawa Hospital because Canadians have donated and fundraised to make it happen,” says Dr. Ong. “Canada is leading the world in many areas of cancer research specifically because the public is involved and invested.”

For the sake of Canadian patients, it’s critical to ensure that vital research is being conducted in our backyard during this era of unprecedented advances. 

“When the research is done here in Canada, our families and our patients have the first opportunity to access new, potentially life-saving treatments… and many patients can’t afford to wait,” says Dr. Auer. 

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