Guy Sauvageau (up) et Claude Perreault (down), principal investigators at IRIC and practicing clinicians at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont.

Yesterday, Genome Quebec announced two 4-year multi-million dollar grants awarded to Drs Claude Perreault and Guy Sauvageau, both principal investigators at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) and practicing clinicians at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont (HMR), a reference center in hematology-oncology.  The two projects developed by IRIC scientists with the support of UdeM’s drug development and commercialization unit, IRICoR (IRIC-Commercialization of Research) have been approved for funding through the Large Scale Applied Research Competition in Personalized Medicine, a Genome Canada-Génome Québec initiative in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health research (CIHR).

Both IRIC projects address the key health issue of hematologic cancers (HCs, commonly called ‘blood cancers’) which represent about 10% of all cancers. The lifetime risk of developing an HC is 5% and the number of new cases of HCs in Canada is 16,000/year (incidence). No known measures can be taken to prevent these cancers and while about 50% of patients with HC can be cured by chemotherapy, 50% are resistant to chemotherapy and are likely to die from HC. For these patients, stem cell transplant (previously called ‘bone marrow transplant’) is the sole curative treatment. It rests on the capacity of immune cells from a healthy donor to detect and kill the cancer cells of the patient. Unfortunately, conventional transplantation induces only an attenuated reaction against cancer cells and relapse is frequent. In addition, in current medical practice this effect lacks specificity and can be highly toxic, inducing a severe immune reaction that is frequently lethal.

Dr Perreault’s project aims to overcome these two major limitations of stem cell transplantation to offer new hope for patients with HCs that are resistant to chemotherapy. In one arm of the study, Dr Perreault’s team will use gene expression profiling to better predict which donors are likely to induce a severe immune reaction in the recipient of a stem cell transplant and develop a test that could be used in the clinic to identify donors that represent the lowest risk for the patient. The second arm of the study, aims to dramatically improve the curative efficacy of transplant by using immune cells already trained to recognize the patient’s cancer cells.  Dr. Perreault has already shown that immune cells of the donor can detect small protein fragments on the cancer cells of the patient and specifically target these cells for destruction. With Dr. Pierre Thibault, his colleague at IRIC, they have identified a collection of such protein ‘tags’ and now aim to determine which ones will induce the best response in immune cells. Dr Perreault and his colleague Dr. Denis-Claude Roy, an Associate Investigator at IRIC and Head of the Research Institute of HMR, will use this information to develop a new form of immunotherapy in which immune cells from the donor will be harvested and ‘trained’ in the laboratory to recognize specific protein markers on the patient’s leukemic cells before being injected in the patient.

“We are very confident that with this support from Génome Canada and Génome Québec we can significantly reduce the risk of bone marrow transplant to patients and improve its effectiveness, thus making it an option for many patients who cannot currently benefit from this life saving procedure” confirms Dr. Perreault.

Dr Sauvageau’s project aims to develop novel tools for comprehensive classification of Acute Myeloide Leukemia (AML) patients in order to improve prognostic accuracy and guide the choice of treatment options available.  AML is diagnosed in approximately 13,000 new patients in Canada and the US each year and the overall survival rate is only ~20%. Current prognostic tests remain inaccurate for risk assessment and therapy guidance in most AML patients, with important consequences for them, their families and the health care system. Building on past successes in next-generation DNA sequencing technologies, researchers involved in this project, including Dr. Josée Hébert, Associate Investigator at IRIC and Director of the Cytogenetics Laboratory and the Leukemia Cell Bank of Québec at HMR, will use personalized DNA sequence data from AML patients to develop a more predictive model based on the genetic make-up of their tumor. These data will be combined with new leukemia-specific cell surface markers and chemical screens to guide the choice of treatment. The second goal of this project is to develop better methods for tracking the small number of residual disease cells that often remain after a patient is treated, and which can lead to a relapse. In some cases, these novel methods of tracking such rare disease cells may also be useful for treating the disease and preventing a relapse.

According to Dr Sauvageau, “A large scale multi-facetted project like this one is only possible because of the strong commitment of Genome Canada and Génome Québec to personalized medicine and the dedication of our multidisciplinary team of scientists and physicians at IRIC and HMR. We are extremely fortunate to have both and we look forward to significantly improved outcomes for our patients.”

At the end of the 4-year grant period, both projects are set to lead to novel therapeutic approaches resulting in significant benefits for patients and to multi-million dollar health care cost savings per year. These projects also illustrate the importance of original funding mechanisms put in place at IRIC, including philanthropy such as the B2Discovery program, to support high risk-high impact research. “Both projects, from their initial stages, were identified by IRICoR for their scientific excellence and treatment paradigm-shifting potential” comments IRICoR’s CEO, Dr Michel Bouvier. “IRICoR has participated in the seed funding and addition of value to Dr Perreault’s and Dr Sauvageau’s projects which led to today’s success”.

Click here to watch the Génome Québec video highlighting the performance of Québec researchers in the Genomics and Personalized Health Competition of Génome Canada and Génome Québec :

About IRICoR

IRICoR is a non-profit organization whose mandate is to accelerate the discovery, development and commercialization of novel drugs that originate from IRIC and Université de Montréal. IRICoR, as a Center of Excellence in Commercialization and Research, invests in highly innovative projects to rapidly transition them from academia to the market, while identifying the best development partners for these commercially-promising projects. For more information about IRICoR, please visit www.iricor.ca.