2016 Invest in Research Winners

Each year, Invest in Research donors select two new and innovative cancer research projects to each receive a grant of $100,000.


Dr. Geoffrey Liu and Dr. Daniel De Carvalho 
Early Detection of Lung Cancer Using Genomic and Epigenomic Analysis of cfDNA

Detecting lung cancer early could significantly improve the chances of a patient’s survival, but early detection remains a stubborn problem. Drs. Geoffrey Liu (Alan B. Brown Chair in Molecular Genomics) and Daniel De Carvalho (Scientist) and their team are looking into ways to detect lung cancer early with just a simple blood test, also known as a liquid biopsy. 

These Princess Margaret Cancer Centre leaders were awarded a 2016 Invest in Research grant for their work on developing genomic and epigenomic analyses to identify mutations or alterations in DNA that could be the key to identifying lung cancer. They are using machine learning, a particular approach to artificial intelligence, to analyze large amounts of data to identify differences between patients with lung cancer, other cancers, and those who are cancer free.

Currently 1.69 million people die from lung cancer around the world every year. However, 80 per cent of lung cancer cases could be cured with early detection, dropping to below 5 per cent for a late stage diagnosis. If detected early, 1.3 million of these patients could be cured. 

Finding lung cancer in its early stage is like finding a needle in a haystack, but the transformative potential of their work is significant. Quicker and easier than a standard biopsy (an invasive procedure that requires a tissue sample), a liquid biopsy is just a simple blood test. 

Through the support from Invest in Research, Drs. Liu and De Carvalho have been able to increase the sample size of the early stage lung cancer cohort. Larger population sample sizes increase the number of available data points, which helps the machine learning process and leads to more accurate findings. 

They are presently integrating their lung cancer patient data with samples from patients with other cancer types to track machine learning multi-cancer classifiers. 

Preliminary results from the study will be used for future grant applications—and to obtain access to even more precious samples. They have applied for a $1.5 million Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) grant (results pending) and are considering a spinoff company.

Dr. Brian Wilson
X-ray activated photodynamic therapy of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is usually found at a late stage when it is difficult to treat and, as a result, has a high fatality rate. Dr. Brian Wilson (Senior Scientist) and his team, which includes Dr. Robert Weersink (Medical Physicist), received a 2016 Invest in Research grant for to investigate the development of a new, safe and minimally invasive way to destroy pancreatic cancer cells, as well as the growth of the resultant tumours, by using novel photodynamic therapy.

One of the challenges is that pancreatic cancer is relatively resistant to existing drugs while radiation treatment is limited by normal organ toxicity.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses special drugs along with light to kill cancer cells. It can be very effective in destroying tumour tissue, is minimally invasive and triggers an anti-tumour immune response. 

The current clinical trials have limitations as optical fibers need to be placed through the abdomen into the tumour under general anesthesia and it is difficult to treat large tumour masses. 

Dr. Wilson and his team had an exciting idea about a new approach to treating pancreatic tumours. They are investigating whether it is possible to use PDT to generate the light inside the tumour using external high-energy X-rays from a Linear Accelerator (LINAC) by targeting the photosensitizer and nanocrystals to the tumour cell nucleus.

They found there was increased DNA damage when exposed to Cherenkov radiation, which proves their principle is sound and has potential to advance from the lab to clinical trials. 

With the support from Invest in Research, Dr. Wilson and his team have filed a patent on the technology, presented the results at the International Photodynamic Association conference, submitted major grant applications and are looking at ways to optimize the nanocrystal and polymer nanoparticle synthesis. 

If this new treatment proves to be successful, it could revolutionize treatment and care for pancreatic cancer patients around the world.