Ottawa Researchers Discover New Combination Therapy to Kill Cancer

Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014

Selon la Société canadienne du cancer, le cancer est la principale cause – environ 30 % – de tous les décès au CanadaDespite the urgent need to find new and effective drugs, it remains extremely difficult to develop anti-cancer therapies in a timely way. Consequently, Ottawa researchers are looking to leverage current experimental therapies, in different combinations, to speed up the process of developing new treatments. According to an article published in Nature Biotechnology, scientific evidence suggests that an approach based on a specific combination may prove effective.

“We are very excited about this novel combination approach and we are looking to move this experimental therapy into clinical trials as soon as possible,” said Dr. Robert Korneluk, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa and a senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute. “I firmly believe that it's not a matter of ‘if' this will help cancer patients – but ‘when' this therapy becomes a standard of care.”

Worldwide evidence has already shown that two immunotherapies are promising. The first, SMAC Mimetics, is an IAP-based therapy that targets cancer-causing genes. IAPs were discovered at CHEO 19 years ago. The second, live virus therapy (also known as oncolytics), is a separate field of study that is booming in Ottawa. Both of these forms of immunotherapy are currently in clinical trials and although the results are encouraging, neither treatment has yet to show substantial results as a stand-alone therapy. That is until a team of scientists led by Dr. Korneluk discovered that when SMAC Mimetics treatment is coupled with live virus therapy (or even other non-viral immune stimulators), the combined tumour-killing effect, which overcomes the limitation of either agent on its own.

“Our combination approach is quite different than standard chemotherapy treatments, which can have significant negative side-effects,” continued Dr. Korneluk. “Instead, we looked at combining two novel experimental cancer drugs that we already know work on the immune system. The results of our combination exceeded expectations – and furthermore, no harm was done to the surrounding healthy tissue when we eradicated tumours.”

In some cases, tumours required 10,000 times less virus to kill a cancer cell when a SMAC mimetic was added. The combined use of these two drugs could possibly save years of clinical development, allowing patients to benefit from these drugs much sooner. The research team postulates that this combination approach is likely better suited to specific cancers and specific uses. For example, tumours that cannot be surgically removed, but that can be injected with a cancer-killing virus, are good candidates. 

This research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It was also supported by donations to the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as by the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, the Ottawa Kiwanis Medical Foundation, and the CHEO Foundation.  CHEO researchers collaborated with scientists at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute to make this discovery.

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Kina Leclair
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University of Ottawa
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Adrienne Vienneau
CHEO Research Institute
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