OICR and FACIT are accelerating the development of innovative cancer therapies in Ontario

A generation ago, those diagnosed with cancer faced a bleak future. In the 1970s, only one out of two American adults diagnosed with cancer survived at least five years, and at 62 per cent, the five-year survival rate for children was not much better. What's more, the lack of options for treatment and the likelihood that the cancer would return stoked the stigma surrounding the disease, making it difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives.

A lot has changed since then. Now, more than two out of three adults diagnosed with cancer will survive more than five years, and the 5-year survival rate of children has improved to 82 per cent. Now, for some cancers, it is possible to take a sample of a patient's cancer cells and run diagnostic tests in order to match targeted therapies aimed at proteins produced by specific genes in cancer cells, explains Dr. John Bartlett, Program Director, Transformative Pathology at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). "Essentially, we are seeking to map the complexity of cancer into pathways or circuits, identify which key components of that circuit we can interrupt and then start to match therapies to that circuit."

OICR is on the forefront of research and development of new ways to approach treatment of breast cancer

Supporting more than 1,700 investigators, clinician scientists, research staff and trainees, OICR is a world-leading cancer research and development institute dedicated to the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Bartlett and his research team focus on diagnostic approaches to breast cancer, a disease that accounts for approximately 14% of cancer deaths among Canadian women.

"We can take samples from patients treated in a uniform way and ask why isn't treatment working? Or, do they need that treatment to begin with? Because in breast cancer, a significant number of women who get chemotherapy would be cured by surgery or endocrine therapy alone, but when we meet them in the clinic we don't know that –we need to provide better information to patients so they can make informed decisions about their treatment options," says Bartlett.

He and his team are committed to identifying aggressive types of breast cancer and matching them with targeted treatments that offer patients the greatest chance for survival. "Twenty-five percent of women with high risk ER-positive breast cancer will ultimately die of their disease. And we need to find a way to identify patients with this high risk form of cancer and determine what treatment they need."

Researchers and scientists from OICR are making considerable progress, with help from data on cancer mutations developed through the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), state-of-the-art equipment from OICR's pathology and drug discovery labs, and important partnership and collaboration opportunities created by OICR's partner. OICR is maximizing impact on prevention, screening and treatment of cancer patients in Ontario and around the globe.

OICR's Drug Discovery lab is attracting attention from major pharmaceutical companies

At the Drug Discovery lab, we meet Dr. David Uehling, Group Leader, Medicinal Chemistry at OICR. Uehling explains he came to OICR to take part in the early stage research that many of the large pharmaceutical companies have divested themselves of. "The fact that chemists and biologists are working shoulder to shoulder here, makes our lab very unique. We began as a medicinal chemistry group and now we are a drug discovery group. What you can see taking place here, is almost like a miniature pharmaceutical company… And in fact, some of the equipment we have is more modern than what is used at some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world." Dr. Uehling himself once worked for a large pharmaceutical company in the U.S. and several of his colleagues came from international pharmaceutical giants.

"We've recently partnered with Janssen Biotech, a Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical company, and that is just the beginning," says Uehling. "This has come to fruition from work we started six years ago when researchers from the University of Toronto came to us with a novel target for blood cancers. We took it on and did all of the early stage validation work that allowed it to become a target that a partner like Janssen would find attractive."

FACIT helps drive ground-breaking cancer innovations into commercial opportunities

Highlighting the quality and depth of the innovations and expertise that OICR continues to cultivate, are the growing numbers of high profile partnerships and transactions completed by the Institute's commercialization partner, Fight Against Cancer Innovation Trust (FACIT). FACIT represents the "gateway" to the opportunities and expert network within OICR, strategically stewarding oncology innovations while attracting the most appropriate partners. It does this by leveraging a unique repertoire of commercial tools including investment funds, startup creation, resident entrepreneurial executives and experienced leadership to help better position novel technologies.

"The ability to invest risk-capital in the most promising of oncology innovations allows FACIT to be very hands-on in our startups, and ultimately mature the technology to a point where we can attract later-stage investors like strategic industry partners and venture capital," says Jeff Courtney, FACIT's Chief Commercial Officer. This availability of investment capital differentiates FACIT as a commercialization engine within the Province, as does its mandate to deliver real-world benefits to Ontario's patients and the local economy.

To date, FACIT has invested in more than 20 projects, resulting in the formation of a dozen startups and helping to leverage approximately $20 million in funding and equity investments into an additional $180 million in private sector funding. Recent successes include: a $450M collaboration and option agreement between Janssen Biotech, OICR, University Health Networks and FACIT-startup Novera Therapeutics; an $11 million investment in Turnstone Biologics Inc. led by Versant Ventures, a top-tiered U.S. healthcare venture capital group; the acquisition of Fluorinov Pharma by Trillium Therapeutics; and an investment to help create Fusion Pharmaceuticals, a radiotherapeutics spin-out from Ontario's Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization.

Mirroring the complexity of the disease, translational cancer research is evolving towards multi-institutional collaborative efforts across the province, the country and even the world. OICR's expansive network is reflective of this movement. "Importantly, this new broad collaborative approach demands that novel commercialization models be considered and implemented," says Courtney. "By helping scientist innovators, entrepreneurs and receptor companies as well as strategic investors connect their technologies with the appropriate resources and each other, we are in turn helping to build the networks, experience and success stories that are key to creating a sustainable innovation economy in Ontario."

Together, FACIT and OICR are ensuring that Ontario plays a vital role in improving the quality of life and survival rates of cancer patients around the world.

Learn more about investment opportunities available with OICR and FACIT.

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February 26, 2016

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