March 5, 2021

UCalgary participates in co-ordinated effort to amplify cancer immunotherapy across Canada

Team led by Douglas Mahoney are co-investigators on a Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to augment new cellular therapies for cancer
Dr Douglas Mahoney, PhD Cumming School of Medicine
UCalgary team led by Douglas Mahoney are co-investigators on a Canada Foundation for Innovation Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children and young people in Canada, with over 800 lives lost every year. Although cancer survival rates are improving, now approaching 85 per cent, there are still many challenges. Cancer can behave differently in children, often growing more rapidly and spreading faster. Finding a new therapy for the resilient cancers that devastate this age group is crucial.

Pushing to the lead of new treatments are cell-based therapies. These therapies use the child’s own immune cells, modified in a lab to give them ‘superhero’ qualities, and then infused back into the body to target the cancer. Dr. Douglas Mahoney, PhD, is leading a team of researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) that is part of a pan-Canadian infrastructure grant to boost availability of this therapy across Canada. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has awarded $5.2 million to ExCELLirate Canada, led by the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) at Queen’s University, to develop a national research platform to co-ordinate the development of new cancer cell therapies.

“Chimeric Antigen Receptor or CAR T-cell immunotherapy uses synthetic biology to modify T-cells so that they recognize and kill a patient’s cancer cells,” says Mahoney, the site lead of the study and an assistant professor in immunology at the CSM. “This therapy has successfully treated children and adult patients with forms of leukemia and lymphoma and there is growing evidence that engineered immune cells also have the potential to be broadly applicable across more types of cancer. The equipment provided by this CFI grant will enable testing of new CAR T therapies being developed in Canada in a highly-efficient and coordinated manner."

“Cell therapies are demonstrating meaningful results and achieving remission in people for whom chemotherapy and stem cell transplants have not worked. But the current costs and access to these treatments are an issue,” says Dr. Annette Hay, project co-lead and senior investigator at the Canadian Cancer Trials Group. “The ExCELLirate Canada platform proposes to revolutionize the manufacturing of cell therapies, including CAR T-cells, and address the challenges that prevent this lifesaving therapy from being used to its full potential.”

ExCELLirate Canada will develop and optimize distributed point-of-care manufacturing to improve efficiency, quality, and capacity to test innovative “made in Canada” cell therapies that will lead to new products and better outcomes for Canadians. The initiative brings together partners and renowned leaders committed to accelerating the evaluation and adoption of cell therapies for cancer within Canada by co-ordinating their activities and resources to enable international-calibre research and development of cell therapies for cancer.

The collaborating institutions and researchers supporting this national platform include: Dr. Jonathon Bramson, McMaster University; Dr. Rebecca Auer, University of Ottawa; Dr. Douglas Mahoney, University of Calgary; Dr. Denis Claude Roy, University of Montreal; and Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, Canadian Blood Services.

 “I’m excited to be part of this national platform which will address gaps in cell therapy infrastructure and will provide rapid, low-cost cell therapy solutions for Canadian families,” says Mahoney

The Calgary team includes Andrew Daly and Nicole Prokopishyn from the Department of Medicine.

Douglas Mahoney is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, and Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Mahoney is supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Writers for this article are from the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute and the Canadian Cancer Trials Group at Queen’s University.