Into the fold

Montreal's Cole Foundation opens doors and creates community for the next generation of pediatric and young adult leukemia and lymphoma researchers.
Image by Owen Egan/Joni Dufour.

The late Jack Cole’s last wish was to have Montreal named a hub for pediatric leukemia and lymphoma research—a legacy being carried on by his nephew Barry Cole at the helm of the eponymous Cole Foundation. To accomplish this goal, the foundation has supported students and young investigators at McGill University for decades as well as at Université de Montréal and INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier, and it welcomed a spike in fellowship applicants from McGill this past year.

The foundation’s history is intimately connected to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation, whose founding chair was Jack Cole, and McGill University, which appoints the Jack Cole Chair in Pediatric Oncology and Hematology, established in 1997.

The late Cole, an investment banker and philanthropist, dedicated his years in retirement to furthering research on pediatric and young adult leukemia and lymphoma. The interest in pediatric leukemia was not fortuitous; Jack Cole was grieving the death of his only child, who lived with the disease throughout her teenage years. He funded the Penny Cole Lab at the Children’s in her name and poured his wealth into the foundation he started in 1980.

Barry picked up the torch as president of the foundation in 2004, when he discovered his late uncle had left the value of his entire estate to the cause. “None of us knew,” Barry said. “All of a sudden the organization tripled in size. And with that came the issue of how to spend the money.”

Barry canvassed Montreal researchers, bridging the English- and French-speaking networks, and uncovered a need for fellowships. The foundation now sponsors 25 doctoral and post-doc researchers from McGill and Université de Montréal working in pediatric and young adult leukemia or lymphoma-related labs each year.

To equip scientists studying leukemia in children and adolescents, the Quebec Leukemia Cell Bank at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont created a pediatric leukemia cell bank with the new Cole Foundation backing. “If researchers don’t have cells for experimentation, then they can help mice get cured but not people,” said Barry.

The foundation also saw a funding gap for young scientists trying to build their portfolios. The Cole Foundation has so far provided 28 young principal investigators with Transition Grants of $50,000 annually for three years. These grants are offered to create new permanent tenure-track positions for researchers who are starting their careers in Montreal. The success rate in national funding competitions is low for any researcher, especially those early in their careers. “We’re giving them money so they can develop their documentations and become competitive,” Barry said.

Today, many types of leukemia are treatable, but when young survivors grow up, they face secondary cancers, obesity and heart problems among others. “If we’re trying to build a research community and solve a problem of a disease, we need fresh ideas and more people working in these areas,” he said. “The only way to do that is the develop the research community and develop the young researchers.”

Sonia del Rincón, PhD'05, is a current recipient of the Transition Grant at the Lady Davis Institute and an assistant professor in McGill’s Gerald Bronfman Department of Oncology. Del Rincón faced personal obstacles early in her research career and says the Transition Grant helped solidify her future as a cancer researcher. During her post-doc, del Rincón and her husband learned they would be unable to conceive children without medical assistance. And yet, determined to not only pursue research but grow her family, del Rincón gave birth to twin boys and started her lab in 2018 at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital where she works on the same floor as her spouse.

“It was so important that the Cole Foundation supported me early on in my career,” she said. Through the Cole Foundation, del Rincón was able to partner with young adult lymphoma specialist Dr. Natalie Johnson at the Jewish General Hospital, and senior investigator Dr. Koren Mann at the Lady Davis Institute. The three recently collaborated on a publication of how non-Hodgkin B cell lymphomas resist oral chemotherapy. The grant allowed her to hire McGill doctoral student Samuel Preston, and they recently submitted another article about a drug targeting the epigenome that can make lymphoma cells more responsive to cancer treatment.

“Those two publications likely would not have happened without the Cole Foundation,” said del Rincón. “And when you go to apply for other grants—reviewers look at your CV and they ask, ‘Does she have funding? Is she able to get competitive funding?’ The fact that the Cole Foundation gave me three years of funding for my lab was huge.” Del Rincón’s lab is now funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Cancer Research Society.

Though it has origins as an endowment named after and run by the Cole family, the Cole Foundation has created a new family of Montreal researchers. These experts in diverse areas of oncology and hematology are connected by the foundation’s mission to eradicate pediatric and young adult leukemia and lymphoma. The Foundation has hosted conferences to bring together researchers from different Montreal institutions, funding new collaborative projects with the help of the Canadian Cancer Society. The foundation also serves as a network for recipients of its various awards and titles. For del Rincón, this has meant partnering with other experts. Meanwhile, Dr. Janusz Rak, Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McGill, has held the Jack Cole Chair since 2006 and maintains a close personal and professional relationship with the foundation. Rak helps recruit leukemia experts to the McGill community and promotes research funded by the foundation.

Though Rak’s main expertise is hematology and fundamental cancer research, as Jack Cole Chair he has strived to apply these findings to tumours in children and young adults, including lymphoma and leukemia. “It is a very McGillian-type of relationship,” he said. “McGill has a way of doing things that is unique,” one that respects research interests and “maximizes creative juices.”

And Rak’s research is just as relevant for leukemia and lymphoma as it is for brain tumours. His pre-clinical studies look at interactions between tumours and the vascular system and the role of bubble-like structures called exosomes, which carry genetic information and proteins from cancer cells that “infect” other cells and spread cancer fingerprints throughout the body. His hematology project asked whether leukemic cells produce exosomes that carry the cancer genes, triggering leukemia in another cell. Rak and visiting researcher Dr. Yi Fang, a Cole Fellowship recipient, found that exosomes spray proteins that cause blood clots, a common cause of complications and even death for leukemia patients. “The beauty and confusing nature of science is that it takes you where you may not plan to go,” he said.

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