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Tackling the most difficult cancers

06 January 2015

Toronto -

For many cancers, research has led to remarkable progress in detection and treatment. Today, over 60%of Canadians diagnosed with cancer will survive. In the 1940s, survival was about 25%.  

However, for some cancers – such as lung, ovarian, pancreas and brain – achieving that same kind of success has been more challenging. These hard-to-treat cancers are often not caught early enough to allow doctors to treat them as effectively.  

Thankfully, researchers are finding ways to improve treatment and survival. The following highlights some of the recent progress Society-funded researchers have had against these cancers: 

  • Dr Raymond Andersen in Vancouver has discovered several substances in marine invertebrates, such as sea sponges, that could be used as non-toxic chemotherapy treatments for different types of cancer, including pancreas. He recently identified a type of cancer-fighting steroid found in sea sponges, which he recreated in the lab and which could eventually allow testing of their effectiveness. 
  • Dr Rayjean Hung in Toronto was part of an international research team that found rare variations of two genes associated with squamous cell lung cancer in people of European ancestry. They also found genetic links for lung adenocarcinoma with a gene variation previously only reported in Asian populations. Not only do these findings contribute new knowledge about the genetic basis of lung cancer, they also have implications for the screening of individuals with these inherited mutations.
  • A study led by Dr Donald Mabbott in Toronto found that children treated for medulloblastoma, a childhood brain cancer, had smaller regions of the brain associated with learning and memory, which was also linked to impairment in these abilities. These findings highlight the need for more targeted therapies that minimize the late effects of treatment on survivors.

Through research, the Society continues to lead the way against these and many other cancers. Current projects focusing on hard-to-treat cancers include:  

  • A study led by Dr John Bell in Ottawa, a leader in developing anti-cancer vaccines that can selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal ones unharmed. Dr Bell is aiming to develop viruses that are more potent and active against pancreas cancer cells and which could also be used to treat other cancers in the future. 
  • A study of ovarian small cell carcinoma, a rare and often fatal type of ovarian cancer mainly affecting girls and young women. Previous research has found that almost all cases of this type of ovarian cancer are caused by mutations in a gene called SMARCA4, which usually helps other genes work normally but is unable to do its job correctly when mutated. Dr William Foulkes in Montreal aims to identify and better understand how genes are poorly controlled by SMARCA4 in these tumours. This research could lead to the discovery of new targets for treatment of this and related cancers. 
  • A study of how to harness the body’s immune system against lung cancer. Dr Wan Lam in Vancouver is studying a new type of immunotherapy that targets a tumour's cellular environment. He will collect samples from healthy individuals and compare to those from lung cancer patients to see differences in the types of immune cells and how they work. Dr Lam will test whether a new treatment that can target specific organs triggers an anti‑tumour immune response in lung cancers. This could lead to new therapies for this devastating disease. 
  • A study of a protein that may play a role in brain cancer development. Dr Lisa Porter in Windsor has identified a protein that helps knock out the protective barrier in neural stem cells, which leads to the development of brain cancer and is connected to poor patient outcomes. Dr Porter will study the role of this protein in brain cancer development with the aim of discovering tools that will improve diagnosis, help guide therapy and may lead to the design of new treatments. 
The Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada thanks to our generous donors and our gold standard peer-review process. We are the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada, funding hundreds of researchers in universities, hospitals and research centres. Together we are discovering new ways to change cancer forever.