Cancer research impacted

Despite a province-wide decrease in funding to health research, cancer research thrives at Queen’s.

Queen’s Cancer Research Institute carries out between $35 and $40 million worth of research per year.
Queen’s Cancer Research Institute carries out between $35 and $40 million worth of research per year.

Today’s economy is making it difficult for research initiatives to acquire funding. Last year, the Ontario provincial government cut $66 million in health research funding, which had a large impact on cancer and heart disease treatment in Canada.

According to a January 2012 CBC News article, the research money was then moved to the Eastern Ontario Development Fund to put into programs “that have a better track record of creating jobs.”

Peter Greer’s cancer research lab of 10 people would be in jeopardy if they were to lose their grant. Greer’s lab focuses on the sequencing of the genomes of tumours in patients.

Greer, professor of biochemistry, pathology and molecular medicine, said he thinks that cancer research isn’t a large enough priority for the Canadian government.

“Political governments act on pressure they feel from constituents,” Greer said. “Canadians are interested in jobs and security and employment level and seeing the economy improve.” He added that people in his field would love to see Canada put more money towards research-based economies, but that it’s a big commitment for a country of only 30 million.

Most funding comes from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), a federal grant agency. Some funding comes from the Canadian Cancer Society or smaller, disease-specific agencies such as Prostate Cancer Canada for those researching prostate cancers.

Funding is granted through an application process, but Greer said acquiring it isn’t easy.

“You see outstanding grant applications come in and you know that only maybe 15-18 per cent of them are going to get funding,” Greer said, adding that there isn’t enough funding to support the capacity of work that researchers would be able to do.

Often a cut, or a lack of funding in medical research can mean that researchers are limited to conducting clinical trials, which can result in less opportunities for the commercializing of the therapy.

At Queen’s, cancer research funding from the Canadian Cancer Society provides ‘Innovation Grants’ of $200,000 over two years and ‘Impact Grants’ of $250,000 every year for five years.

However even in recent years charities such as the Canadian Cancer Society has seen a decrease in the proportion of dollars spend on research versus fundraising and administration costs, according to a July, 2011 CBC News article.

Research funding dropped from approximately 40.3 per cent in 2000 to less than 22 per cent in 2011.

The Laboratory for Percutaneous Surgery, or ‘Perk Lab,’ aims at bringing interdisciplinary practices to cancer research on campus through combining computing with cancer research.

Percutaneous cancer surgery is a surgical procedure done through the skin of the patient.

The surgery can be done both through needles and injections and through ‘virtual needles’ such as high-energy X-ray and laser beams.

Computing, electrical engineering and medical students, amongst others, work in the Perk Lab.

Gabor Fichtinger, director of the Perk Lab and professor in the School of Computing, said this kind of surgery can be carried out on cancer patients for taking a biopsy of the cancer and for therapeutic interventions for the disease.

“[For] biopsy, we cut out a piece of tissue and send it to pathology,” Fichtinger said. “The other kind of therapy is, for example, heat therapy when we deliver thermo energy … through the needle to the tissue."

“Our business is to create a local destruction of cells.”

Despite the cuts, according to Dr. Susan Cole, a cancer researcher at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute, Queen’s is a good “niche” place for cancer research.

Multidrug Resistance Protein 1 (MRP), a protein that pumps drugs out of cells, was discovered by Cole and her team of researchers in 1992.

“Probably the thing that launched us was a discovery we made 20 years ago that has been the basis of my program,” Cole said. “[It’s a] real paradigm-shifting discovery that continues to be a very fruitful investigation.” Cole added that when she started there were around three basic lab scientists and now there are over 20.

In the last five years, there’s been a lot of interest in MRP as it was discovered that it also pumps out antioxidants from cells.

“[It’s] a discovery in the cancer field but it really had a cross-disciplinary impact,” Cole said, adding that it meant that researchers of different diseases such as Alzheimer’s became interested in the protein.

Cole said that since the beginning of the QCRI, cancer research has changed enormously.

“[There’s] a greater integration of different types of approaches to cancer research,” she said.

Although the economy of cancer research is going through some challenging times, the QCRI is able to carry out between $35 and $40 million of research per year.

Director of the QCRI, Roger Deeley, said that over the last five or six years, the QCRI has received at least half a dozen major national awards for cancer research.

“I think we compare very favourably with other locations in Canada,” he said, adding that health research in general is having a hard time getting funding.

“It doesn’t matter what type of health research you’re carrying out at the moment,” he said.

According to Deeley, funding is becoming harder to get because of research costs rising and the economy being unable to keep up.

In an email statement to the Journal, Deeley said that the QCRI tries to watch the trends and shifts in research funding, responding to them accordingly.

He said that the Institute also ensures that they’re taking advantage of the full range of funds available, such as ones from the government and cancer research charities.

Deeley added that for a university the size of Queen’s, in a town the size of Kingston, the QCRI is actually quite a large operation.

Including all trainees, principal investigators and research technical staff, there are about 250 people working at the 60,000 square-foot facility on the south-east end of campus.

The Institute was established in 2001 to bring together three pre-existing cancer research groups: the radiation oncology research unit, the cancer research laboratories and the National Cancer Institute of Canada’s Clinical Trials Group.

“We were all working in different areas of cancer research with the potential for complementarity and synergism that might be benefited with them being all under one roof,” Deeley said.

He added that there are few locations that span the extent of cancer research that the QCRI is capable of carrying out.

Now, divisions of the QCRI stand as: Cancer Biology and Genetics, Cancer Clinical Trials, and Cancer Care and Epidemiology.

The Institute also stands as a learning ground for potential researchers. There’s an increasing number of fourth-year undergraduate courses, with a focus on cancer research taught in an informal seminar style.

It’s the interdisciplinary nature of the cancer research at Queen’s which sets it apart from other places with cancer research opportunities, according to Deeley.

“What we’re trying to do in the Institute is to give our trainees the opportunities to … get a broad training in cancer research,” he said, adding that QCRI attracts a lot of students who come to Queen’s specifically to carry out cancer research.

Deeley said a broad training is important because cancer research, like many areas of health research, is shifting to multidisciplinary team-based approaches.

When it comes to cancer research, the interdisciplinary, umbrella is very wide.

“Virtually any discipline pertinent to health research in general has a role to play in cancer research.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.