From helping our immune system stop tumour growth to improving the quality of life of patients, Queen’s researchers are being recognized for their groundbreaking work on cancer biology, treatment, and care.
Cancer research programs led by Dr. Sébastien Talbot (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Dr. Brooke Wilson (Medical Oncology) were awarded new funding from the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).
The Queen’s Health Sciences researchers received Emerging Scholar Research Grants worth a combined $1.1M over five years to “support promising early-career investigators from across Canada” to “pursue important scientific advances” of the highest quality.
Dr. Talbot ’s lab is working to boost immunosurveillance and improve chances of survival for people with cancer. The immune system inherently identifies and eliminates abnormal cells, including cancer cells. However, under this immune pressure, cancer can evolve to evade this detection, allowing tumour cells to continue growing unchecked. When cancer adapts in this way, it gains the ability to sustain its growth despite the immune system’s efforts.
“My lab is interested neuroimmunology and how sensory neurons carry pain-control immune responses to the brain. We look at this in different contexts, from allergies to cancer,” says Dr. Talbot. “We found that there are nerve fibres that grow in tumours and if we block these nerves or eliminate them, the immune response against the tumours is better.”
With funding from the CCS, a team led by Dr. Talbot is building on past work to study the interaction between the nervous and immune systems. The researchers will examine how pain sensors control tumours’ ability to resist therapy and then develop strategies to prevent immune exhaustion and enhance anti-tumour immunity. If successful, the study could generate new biological insights and therapies, boosting immunosurveillance and improving chances of survival for people with cancer.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wilson’s project aims to improve quality of life for people with advanced gastrointestinal cancers. A team led by Dr. Wilson will help people with metastatic cancer make informed decisions about their care by assessing the value of treatments prescribed after initial options have failed.
People with metastatic cancer cycle through several treatment options before their disease becomes resistant to treatment and supportive care is pursued. Usually, treatments with the greatest evidence for success are prescribed first. But when they fail to work, other treatments are prescribed even though they are often more expensive and toxic and frequently offer less benefit.
Dr. Wilson's says her project will provide a comprehensive analysis of the “real-world value” of these so-called “later-line” treatments using population-level administrative data from across Ontario.
“This study will provide a comprehensive analysis of the real-world uptake, benefits, toxicities and economic costs of later-line treatments for patients with metastatic colorectal, esophageal, and pancreaticobiliary cancers,” she says. “We will determine the value of later-line chemotherapy for patients with advanced cancers.”
The researchers are partnering with patients and patient advocates to ensure that results are appropriately interpreted and translated for the patient perspective. If successful, the findings could inform daily clinical discussions with people affected by advanced gastrointestinal cancers to help them make informed decisions regarding their care and improve quality of life.
Dr. Wilson hopes to replicate the research with breast cancer and other tumour types in the future. In the end, it’s all about patients being able to make informed decisions about their care.
“When we think of value, we tend to think about how effective a drug is,” she says. “But we also need to talk about harms including the costs to the patient. So, if a drug in late-line therapies adds 1.5 months of survival benefit, but 30 out of those 45 days are spent in-and-out of the healthcare system, does that really offer value to patients? That's for patients to decide, but it's important for them to have that information.”
Both researchers spoke about how essential funding is from organizations like CSS.
“My family and I, as lifelong donors deeply impacted by cancer, and now with my role in cancer research, extend our gratitude to everyone for their unwavering support,” Dr. Talbot says. “This funding is crucial for exploring high-risk/high-reward strategies, often overlooked by government-sponsored research and unexplored by the pharmaceutical industry. Thus, it becomes a vital conduit for advancing basic and innovative research, leading to breakthrough treatments for patients.
Dr. Talbot is part of two Queen's Health Sciences Research Excellence Clusters (REC): Pain and Neuroimmunology and Cancer Immunology & Immunotherapy; Dr. Wilson is part of the Global Cancer Control REC. Learn more here.
-With files from Canadian Cancer Society