In the cancer trenches

Four researchers receive grants; Queen’s announces new clinical trial

The new clinical trial was announced Monday.
The new clinical trial was announced Monday.
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With a new clinical trial for lung cancer patients set to begin and four separate grants received by cancer researchers, Queen’s is looking to improve the outlook for cancer patients.

The NCIC Clinical Trials Group (NCIC CTG) announced Monday that it’s developed and will lead an international clinical trial for patients with non-small cell lung cancer who have already undergone surgery and chemotherapy.

Non-small cell lung cancer makes up 80 to 85 per cent of all lung cancer cases.

The drug being tested, MEDI4736, was developed by AstraZeneca as part of a class of drugs that improves the immune system’s ability to recognize and fight cancer cells. The trial is open to 1,100 patients.

Dr. Janet Dancey, director of the NCIC CTG, said the time period from the trial idea being suggested by investigators to putting together a regulatory package for Health Canada was about three and a half to four months, adding that this was “incredibly fast”.

“Just trying to have collaborations, not just with AstraZeneca but with all of these different countries and groups and the investigators in these different countries, all of that had to mesh as well,” she said.

“But it’s the excitement being generated about testing this agent in lung cancer patients that just pulled everybody together.”

She said the trial is built around figuring out whether the new treatment will improve the long-term survival of lung cancer patients, who she said “desperately” need better treatments.

“Currently, too many people who are diagnosed with lung cancer still unfortunately aren’t cured, so this is really an opportunity to try to improve the outcomes for those patients — first in the context of a trial like this, and, if it’s successful, then it will become standard of care,” she said.

“We have an opportunity to do that, to really impact our patients’ lives.”

In addition to the trial announcement, four cancer researchers at Queen’s have each received grants from the Cancer Research Society.

Madhuri Koti, a researcher in the department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, and Bruce Elliott, Peter Greer and Lois Mulligan, all in the department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, each received $120,000.

Their projects all deal with basic cancer research, and their labs involve an “extensive population” of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, according to Mulligan.

“I think we’re all funded in projects that have a relationship to the spread of cancer and metastasis of cancer, so each of the projects is separate,” Mulligan said. “The overall theme of all of them is looking at how cancer spreads and a portion of that comes out of the fact that [Queen’s] is a very good spot to be doing a translational and a transdisciplinary research project.”

Mulligan, Greer and Elliott all spoke of the importance of basic research, with Mulligan saying that the Cancer Research Society is one of just a few remaining Canadian agencies that funds basic research nationally.

“The funding that they give out is not large and it’s not extended, but it’s extremely valuable,” she said.

“It’s the starting point for many, many of these important research projects. Queen’s has been very successful this year with CRS funding and I think that’s a good recognition of the quality of research that’s gone on and the potential impact of the research that is peer-reviewed by scientists across the country.”

She added that even though what funding the Society does give out is valuable, cancer researchers can “always do more with more”.

The ideas and information developed in basic research — for example, the mechanisms associated with the development and spread of cancer — form the basis for development by the pharmaceutical industry, often with much larger sums of money than basic research receives, Greer said.

“That’s getting into the trenches, really, of cancer biology, and pharmaceutical companies don’t do that, they wait for us to do that,” Greer said.

“And then we bang our heads on the wall for, sometimes, a whole career, and if we’re lucky we find a few things that may get ultimately translated into a novel therapeutic.”

He said thanks to belt-tightening, there’s an increasing emphasis on the most high-impact research, pushing scientists to pick “low-hanging fruit”.

“If we just put all of our emphasis on trying to — to use another bad metaphor, pick the low-hanging fruit, then what’ll happen is in another five, 10, 15 years, that’s it, there is no more low-hanging fruit,” he said.

“And the infrastructure, the people that have the knowledge to do this sort of thing or train the next generation of people who have the knowledge to do that — it will have been depleted.”

— With files from Jacob Rosen

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