Major advances in cancer vaccines in Quebec - The Canadian Cancer Society grants $2.3 M to three research teams in Quebec

26 February 2013

Montreal, QC -

This morning, the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) announced that it will grant $2.3 million to researchers in Montreal and Quebec City who are aiming to develop cancer vaccines.

“We are excited by these strategies that take advantage of the patient’s immune system,” comments Melody Enguix, Scientific Communication Advisor, CCS – Quebec Division. “These projects demonstrate the strength of the immunology research community in Quebec.”

In addition to providing support for the work of Dr Claude Perreault of Université de Montréal, Dr Michel Tremblay of McGill University, and Dr Yves Fradet of Université Laval, the CCS is also providing 9 Impact Grants to Canadian researchers (for a total of $13 million). In Quebec, a total of 5 researchers are receiving grants ($4.7 million in all), including Dr Guy Sauvageau at IRIC for his work on leukemia drugs and Dr Robert Day of Université de Sherbrooke for his work on prostate cancer.

Cancer vaccines: a promising path

Cancer vaccines are not designed to prevent cancer; instead, they treat the disease and prevent its recurrence. Scientists refer to this promising strategy as immunotherapy. Its goal is to stimulate the immune system, the body’s natural defence against disease, which cancer cells can sometimes outsmart.

In Quebec City, Dr Yves Fradet’s team at Université Laval aims to apply this approach to bladder cancer. In 2012, this disease affected 7,800 people in Canada and 2,740 people in Quebec. Most notably, it is a form of cancer that often recurs in patients. “It’s a lifelong proposition,” says Dr Yves Fradet regretfully. His work aims to provide patients with a vaccine that enables their body to defend against recurrence.

Today, the standard treatment is a simple form of immunotherapy in which weakened bacteria (known as BCG) are injected into the bladder. As a result, immune cells are alerted and mobilized in the bladder where they discover the cancer cells, which become “collateral victims” of their attack. “Currently, this is one of the rare forms of immunotherapy available clinically,” explains Dr Fradet, “but it is too rudimentary.” As the immune system does not specifically target the cancer, it retains no memory of the cancer cells and cannot prevent recurrence. With the CCS’s $1 million grant, Dr Fradet and his team aim to create a vaccine with tumour proteins designed to enable immune cells to recognize cancer cells and remember them in the event of recurrence.

Dr Claude Perreault has found a means to educate immune cells. His team at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) at Université de Montréal has shown that leukemia cells in mice feature typical surface proteins that can be detected and memorized by certain immune cells known as memory T cells. These immune cells are harvested, “trained” in the laboratory to recognize cancer-related proteins, and re-injected into the body. “We’ve cured enough mice,” says Dr Perreault, joking. He hopes to test the vaccine in patients soon. He receives a grant of $1.1 million to adapt this discovery for clinical use.

The third project, involving a team at McGill University, complements the above-mentioned initiative by aiming to make these vaccines faster-acting and more effective. The challenge when cultivating memory T cells in a laboratory is to ensure their survival and growth to enable them to launch a massive attack on the tumour once they are re-injected into the patient. Dr Tremblay’s team has discovered that by inhibiting one gene in these cells, they grow in large numbers. He receives a grant of $200,000 to apply this discovery to cancer vaccines.

“This year, the CCS celebrates its 75th anniversary. Since the beginning, it has chosen to invest in research for maximum impact against the disease. To date, over $1.2 billion has been provided in grants to researchers across the country,” states Suzanne Dubois, Executive Director, CSS – Quebec Division. “Today, thousands of people in Quebec survive cancer thanks to our researchers’ work. The Canadian Cancer Society wishes to accomplish even more in the future, because as our knowledge about cancer grows, we will see even greater progress.”

Much past research would not have been possible without major support from the Canadian Cancer Society, which has already contributed nearly $5 million in 15 years to these 3 researchers. The CCS is counting on these new Impact Grants, the largest-ever such contribution, to lead to tangible results for patients. To that end, it is investing major sums over 5 years (up to $1.2 million per project).

Two other projects are also receiving Impact Grants ($1.2 million each) from the CCS:

  • Dr Robert Day’s team in Sherbrooke aims to develop a drug for patients with advanced prostate cancer. His team has designed a promising future drug that stops tumour growth in mice. Anti-hormone treatment, which is the standard treatment for advanced prostate cancer, prolongs life by just a few years and does not cure patients. This research may lead to a new drug for these patients.
  • Dr Guy Sauvageau’s team at IRIC is studying 2 genes whose combined action plays a major role in some forms of leukemia. Their project is designed to find a molecule that disrupts this effect, thereby potentially paving the way for new leukemia drugs.

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

André Beaulieu

Spokesperson and Senior Advisor, Public Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Quebec Division

Phone: (514) 393-3444