Dr. Rebecca Auer
Director of Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital
In our fast-paced world, few things are advancing as rapidly as cancer research, and some of the most innovative science in the field is being done right here in Canada. At The Ottawa Hospital, advances in personalized treatments, targeted therapies, and immuno-oncology in particular are making major waves in the global cancer community.
The Ottawa Hospital’s Director of Cancer Research, Dr. Rebecca Auer, is a practicing cancer surgeon and inspired research scientist. Having studied at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University in Kingston, Dr. Auer pursued a fellowship in surgical oncology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York before being recruited back to join, and eventually lead, The Ottawa Hospital’s cutting-edge cancer research team. Today, she’s focused on bringing diverse, novel treatments safely and efficiently from laboratory to bedside.
The difference between cancers and viruses, from the perspective of your immune system, is that cancers ultimately come from within you.Dr. Rebecca Auer, The Ottawa Hospital’s Director of Cancer Research
Pioneering new ideas and breathing life back into old ones
“There have been a number of major breakthroughs in cancer,” says Dr. Auer, who’s also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Some of the biggest advances have been in biotherapeutics, particularly engineering viruses and cells as tools to kill cancer. This research is intrinsically connected with immunotherapy because these techniques are heavily focused on recruiting the patient’s immune system to help fight the cancer.”
The idea of using the immune system to fight cancer, or even vaccinating against cancer itself, isn’t new. Our immune system is our most valuable ally in the pursuit of good health, and cancer researchers have been seeking to harness that power since the early 20th century. But, in practice, the idea has faced one fundamental hurdle for decades. “The difference between cancers and viruses, from the perspective of your immune system, is that cancers ultimately come from within you,” says Dr. Auer. “Our immune system learns very early on not to attack our own tissue, which is challenging because cancer cells look a lot like normal tissue.”
From an engineered virus to a personalized cancer vaccine
It was while testing a novel virus in mice — a virus that had been engineered to selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact — that Dr. Auer’s team noticed an immunogenic response. Once the virus started infecting the cancer cells, the immune system was getting in on the action to finish the job. “Further experiments confirmed that this acts as a lasting vaccine against that specific cancer,” says Dr. Auer. “As a surgeon, my first thought was that I take out tumours all the time. Why couldn’t I take out a tumour, allow the virus to replicate in the cancer cells, and then give that back to the patient as an infected cell vaccine?”
Now, with the newest version of the therapy, that’s exactly what Dr. Auer and her team aim to do. By combining the engineered virus with the patient’s own cancer cells, the vaccine acts as a triple threat. First it kills the cancer cells directly, then it boosts the immune system’s natural response with a protein called interleukin-12, before finally training the immune system to recognize and fight the patient’s specific cancer should it try to return in the future.
Canadian research saves Canadian lives
The first human trials of the infected cell vaccine are expected by 2021, beginning with treatments for leukemia and other blood cancers, as well as cancers that spread in the abdominal cavity. It behooves and benefits Canadians to diligently foster a system where these advances and clinical trials continue to take place here within our borders.
“Having this research done in Canadian centres like The Ottawa Hospital gives Canadian patients access to novel therapeutics years earlier than they would have had them otherwise,” says Dr. Auer. “It also gives our clinicians an opportunity to understand and gain experience with these treatments well before they become the standard of care. And finally, it supports the innovative work of our amazing Canadian scientists who are international leaders in the discovery of novel biotherapies.”