Is Canada ready for The Next Big Thing in cancer treatment?

Think of cancer immunotherapy as an inside job:  While chemotherapy and radiation destroy cancer cells from the outside, cancer immunotherapy deploys the patient’s own immune system to attack the disease from within.

Cancer immunotherapy’s arsenal of immunotherapies ranges from monoclonal antibodies that can target malignant cells, inhibitors that help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells, vaccines that trigger an anti-cancer response, and re-engineered and expanded T-cells designed to kill specific cancer cells.

For patients, the life-enhancing prospects of not having to endure the toxic side-effects of chemo and radiation are almost as appealing as the life-saving cures that this revolutionary field of oncological research is poised to deliver.

”The evidence suggests we are at the beginning of a whole new era for cancer treatments,” Prof. Peter Johnson, Director of Medical Oncology at Cancer Research UK, told the Daily Mail in 2015.  Things have only accelerated since then for The Next Big Thing in cancer care.

The cancer immunotherapy revolution is moving fast and turning the oncology world upside down, according to Dr. Lambert Busque, Chief Medical Officer of the Centre for Commercialization of Cancer immunotherapy (C3i).  Established last year by Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence, C3i predicts that immunotherapy could be used in the majority of advanced cancer cases in less than a decade.

Which raises the question: is Canada ready for this revolution in cancer care?

“There is a lot of knowledge and competence in Canada,” says Dr. Busque, whose C3i organization operates out of the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont’s Integrated University Center of East Montreal.  But, he says, Canada needs greater capacity to translate immunotherapies into patient care and to help Canadian companies compete in a rapidly growing global market.

To address those concerns, C3i is partnering with CellCAN Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy Network and BioCanRx to host next month’s PanCanadian Strategic Forum on Cell and Gene Therapy in Montreal.  Dr. Busque will moderate a panel discussion on what it will take for Canada to become a world leader in commercializing cancer immunotherapy, drawing on the C3i model.

“We designed C3i to be very close to the clinic,” says Dr. Busque.  “Because treatment and health care is part of the public sector while development is done in the private sector, the key is to make the link between them, to have a structure to help Canadian inventions mature rapidly and have better access to markets.  If we have no instrument to do that, the development will go outside the country.”

Canada, in fact, could become a hub for cancer immunotherapy development if 3Ci can succeed strengthening collaborations with major pharmaceutical firms in driving clinical trial development.  Dr. Busque cites C3i’s access to a “state of the art” certified Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) cell manufacturing unit as critical for conducting trials and developing cell-based and biological therapeutics.

C3i is also making the development of biomarkers a priority.  Because not all cancer patients respond in the same way with the same immunotherapy, researchers worldwide have focused their attention on developing biomarkers that can predict therapy outcomes and help doctors tailor treatments to a particular patient or type of patient.

“Biomarkers will be crucial in the development of therapies,” says Dr. Busque.  “So we are developing a biomarker unit with next generation computer sequencing to do cutting edge analysis of cellular biomarkers.”

Having already built a network of oncology centres across Quebec, C3i hopes to create linkages across Canada to expand access to patients for larger scale clinical trials.

“We’re not alone.  We’re going to be one piece of a large puzzle in Canada.  There are so many great contributions being made across Canada.  We hope to be a catalyst in respect to Canadian collaborations because Canada can be extremely successful.”

Are there stem cell treatments for breast cancer?

While no stem cell therapy currently has Health Canada or FDA approval for the treatment of breast cancer, the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and many others are working to turn stem cell research into treatments as quickly and safely as possible.

What are scientists hoping stem cells can do?

Scientists believe cancer is propagated by a small subset of cells with stem cell properties – and that these cancer stem cells must be eliminated to cure the disease. Researchers are working to identify and isolate cancer stem cells to detect breast cancer earlier, predict its prognosis, and provide drug therapy targets.

Are clinical trials currently underway?

Early clinical trials are using new ways to track cells and DNA in breast cancer patients before surgery, at the time of removing the cancer, and for years afterwards. Other studies are testing whether cancer stem cell biomarkers can predict patients’ response to treatments.

When might a stem cell therapy be available?

Finding therapies presents challenges that will take time to overcome, but the wealth of information about breast cancer stem cells now being generated in laboratories around the globe will help with the transition from basic research to clinical application.

This post is also available in: German

William C. Hilberg
As an author, Mr. Hilberg has published several papers on health issues that have gained international recognition. He is close to nature and loves the seclusion and activity as a freelance journalist. In his function as editor William C. Hilberg manages the entire content of PENP. Our team greatly appreciates his expertise and is proud to have him on board.