With its unprecedented level of collaboration between basic scientists and clinicians, the researchers from the Cancer Research theme within the Life Sciences Complex (LSC) are deepening our mechanistic and biological understanding of cancer initiation and progression. The theme's interdisciplinary teams of internationally renowned researchers investigate the interplay between genes and proteins in tumour development and metastasis, and apply that research to the development of new treatments. Housed in the modern Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Institute (GCI), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the theme focuses on four core areas of cancer research: addressing Cellular Stemness and Plasticity, Tumor Microenvironment and Oncometabolism, understanding how cancer cells adapt and develop resistance to therapies and metastatic disease, and translating these discoveries to new Cancer Therapeutics.
Prior to the creation of the LSC, cancer researchers were scattered across McGill. "This Complex allowed cancer researchers on campus to be consolidated and that was transformative," explains Morag Park, Professor of Oncology and Biochemistry and Director of the GCI. "It's about bringing people together, setting up cutting-edge platforms and cores, allowing us to do what we couldn't do before." One of the biggest knock-on effects has been in the university's ability to attract world-renowned cancer researchers. "What allows us to recruit really top people is the fact that we've got some of the very best cutting-edge facilities and a research environment that is supported within the GCI and the Life Sciences Complex. We have open concept labs, which is a fantastic environment for students and a fantastic environment to recruit young PIs who are coming from places like Harvard, MD Anderson and Sloan Kettering Cancer Centres."
Four big breakthroughs from the Goodman Cancer Research Centre
1. Knockout mice open up new immunotherapy approaches: Professor of Biochemistry Michel Tremblay's lab focuses primarily on characterizing the function of the enzyme family called protein tyrosine phosphatases (PTPs), which are essential for normal cellular development. Their TC-PTP null mouse was the first ever PTP KO (knockout mouse) created. A knockout mouse is one that has had a gene "knocked out" by replacing it with artificial DNA. Employed in several studies, the team used these mice to demonstrate the importance of this regulatory PTP in all immune cells including hematopoietic stem cells. This knowledge was applied to develop novel approaches in immunotherapy, including in dendritic cells therapy that is moving forward into clinical trial for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. Another application is a new protocol for CAR-T expansion and activation in cancer therapy, which is currently under U.S. patent review.
Stem Cells. 2013 Feb;31(2):293-304. DOI: 10.1002/stem.1276
2. Metabolic flexibility and aggressive cancer: Professor Peter Siegel's lab, as part of a larger oncometabolism team within the GCI, has made recent progress in understanding how metastatic breast cancer cells alter their cellular metabolism when they seed and colonize distinct organs (bone, lung or liver). These different metastases engage distinct metabolic programs and it has become clear from the research emerging from the GCI that the most aggressive cancer cells, those that can metastasize or those that are resistant to treatment, exhibit the greatest degree of metabolic flexibility.
Cell Metabolism. 2017, 26(5): 778-787 DOI:10.1016/j.cmet.2017.09.006
3. Metformin to treat fragile X syndrome, autism: Professor and Gilman Cheney Chair in Biochemistry Nahum Sonenberg' lab has shown that metformin, an FDA-approved drug which is widely used to treat type 2 diabetes, reverses a range of phenotypic deficits in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS). The results raise the possibility that this drug could be repurposed for the treatment of FXS and autism spectrum disorder in the clinic. Promising results of behavioural improvement in seven FXS patients after treatment with metformin were recently published in Clinical Genetics, and for the moment, clinical trials are ongoing in Canada and the U.S.
4. Creation of the Montreal Cancer Consortium: On June 28, 2018, the Terry Fox Research Institute announced funding for the Montreal Cancer Consortium (MCC) Pilot Project, where Dr. Ian Watson from the GCRC will serve as project co-lead with Dr. John Stagg of the Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CRCHUM). The MCC is composed of seven research hospitals and centers including the CRCHUM and GCI, together with the Centre de recherche de l’Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, Université de Montréal, the Génome Québec Innovation Centre, and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. In total, the MCC will harness the data power of more than 18,000 cancer patients annually and more than 50 ongoing precision medicine and immunotherapy clinical trials, with the goal of developing one of the most patient-centric oncology innovation poles in Canada.