Toronto, ON – Dr Rebecca Auer, a scientist and surgical oncologist at the Ottawa Hospital, has received a $450,000 grant to investigate whether a vaccine could stop cancer from spreading after surgery. Appreciating the potential impact of this study, a group of cancer organizations – the Canadian Cancer Society, the National Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation (NPCCF), Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society and the QEII Foundation – have teamed up to co-fund this work.
The main treatment for many types of cancer is surgery. In fact, more than half of all people with cancer will have some type of surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible. But it can be challenging to find and remove all cancer cells. Unfortunately, sometimes cancer is more likely to spread after surgery, which is the problem that Dr Auer is addressing for pancreatic cancer.
The trauma of surgery can weaken the immune system, rendering it less able to detect and destroy any leftover cancer cells. “The immune system is in a constant battle with the cancer,” says Dr Auer, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “While surgery itself does not cause cancer to spread, it can lower immunity, giving any residual cancer cells a fighting chance to grow back and spread.”
Currently there is nothing being done routinely to boost a patient’s immune system to prevent cancer from spreading after surgery.
To tackle this problem, Dr Auer has developed a vaccine containing oncolytic (or cancer-killing) viruses. This type of vaccine is intended to outsmart cancer cells, which often trick the immune system and escape detection. Oncolytic viruses are designed to travel safely through the body to seek out and destroy cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact. At the same time, the viruses can be engineered to strengthen the immune system to mount a powerful attack on cancer cells. It is this two-pronged approach that makes the vaccine so promising.
Dr Auer has chosen to focus her research on pancreatic cancer because, despite surgical removal, the cancer almost always comes back, leading to one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer. She is hopeful that her research will lead to new therapies within as little as 5 years. “It seems far-fetched, I know, to use viruses to fight cancer, but I believe there will be a paradigm shift soon,” she says. Patients treated with oncolytic viruses typically experience very few and mild flu-like side effects, she notes, compared with traditional chemotherapies.