Unraveling the Miracle

By Cancer Foundation on December 27 / 2018


You’ve made Dr. Auer’s research possible by supporting local research through the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Now patients with advanced abdominal cancer have new hope.

It’s been 15 years since Dr. Rebecca Auer worked in the lab with renowned cancer researcher Dr. John Bell on a brand new cancer treatment. But it’s an experience she’ll never forget.

“We were so optimistic about this new oncolytic virus therapy and how effective it was in animal studies,” Dr. Auer recalls. “To see that patients are now receiving the therapy as part of a clinical trial is very exciting.”

Dr. Auer started her own surgical oncology practice and lab in 2008. Today, thanks to your support, she’s expanding on Dr. Bell’s groundbreaking research. She and her team have engineered a virus that stimulates a patient’s own immune system to kill their cancer.

“Before the emergence of cancer immunotherapy, you could extend the life of patients with stage 4 abdominal cancers (colon, ovarian, pancreas and stomach) but at the end of the day they would almost certainly die from their cancer,” says Dr. Auer. “Immunotherapy has changed that. It’s changed the shape of the survival curve so now some patients even with these terrible cancers are actually cured.”

Dr. Auer’s approach is to surgically remove the cancer cells that grow in the abdominal cavity, infect them with the virus in the lab and give them back to the patient like a vaccine. “It’s a personalized cancer vaccine – a type of immunotherapy,” she explains.

In the lab, Dr. Auer and her team have cured mice with large bulky tumours that would otherwise have died within a couple of days.

Cancer is a complicated disease, but with donor support we are arming ourselves with all the tools we need to be able to tackle it. ~ Dr. Rebecca Auer, surgical oncologist and researcher

The next step before moving on to clinical trials in patients is to manufacture the virus on a large scale in a facility that meets stringent safety requirements. “We have to figure out exactly how to process the cells and it all has to be done in a highly sterile environment. That’s where a lot of our focus is right now,” Dr. Auer explains. “We hope to start clinical trials within two years. We want patients in our community to have access to exciting therapies like oncolytic viruses and immunotherapies as early as possible,” Dr. Auer says. “In addition, the answer to solving the cancer mystery could be inside a patient we treat through a clinical trial. We need to understand why a therapy works so well in a patient. It’s the only way we can unravel the miracle and make more patients better.”

Auer in ORPhoto: Dr. Auer in the operating room during an abdominal cancer surgery. With donor support, she is hoping to start personalized cancer vaccine clinical trials in the next 2 years. She is deeply grateful for the funding she’s received from donors and emphasizes just how important it is to support cancer research and local clinical trials in the Ottawa Region.

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