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Canadian Ovarian Cancer Biomarker Project Funded with C$5M

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers across Canada will use C$5 million (US$4.9 million) in funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer to create a new validation system for stratifying ovarian cancer patients based on biomarkers and to predict which patients will respond to standard treatments, TFRI said Thursday.

The five-year project will create the Ovarian Cancer Pan-Canadian Program (COEUR), which will engage 35 researchers at multiple institutions and nine biobanks.

Although ovarian cancer is rare, it is the fifth deadliest cancer in the western world, in part because one out of every four women diagnosed with it are resistant to the standard first-line chemotherapy.

"The team is building a unique, central scientific platform that will create a rich clinical resource for researchers to validate new biomarkers and treatments for ovarian cancer," Anne-Marie Mes-Masson, a principal investigator on the project, said in a statement. "By linking together laboratory scientists with the oncologists, surgeons, and pathologists who work with the patients on the front lines, our work will be much more relevant and bear fruit that will reach patients much more quickly."

The goal of the retrospective project is to develop a new biomarker-based stratification system for ovarian cancer subtypes that will help physicians make better decisions for each patient, and which could be used to direct patients who do not respond to standard therapy into clinical trials where new treatments are being validated.

"Classically in the clinic we treat [ovarian cancer] all as one disease with one type of treatment, even though we know it is going to fail in some of the subtypes. So, part of the biomarkers would be to help pathology departments better separate them into their proper buckets based on which type of ovarian cancer it is," Mes-Masson, a professor at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the University's Hospital Research Centre, told GenomeWeb Daily News yesterday.

The other part of the project, Mes-Masson said, is to identify women who aren't going to respond to first-line therapy even in the types of cancer where they are expected to respond.

"The idea is that now that we have more types of therapeutics we can offer them, if we know beforehand a woman is not going to respond to that first-line therapy, instead of watching the treatment fail, and all of its consequences in terms of the woman's health, those [patients] would be redirected to other therapeutics.

"In one case you're stratifying based on the subtype of the disease, and in the other case you're stratifying on what you suspect is the response to standard first-line therapy," she explained.

Mes-Masson told GWDN that Canada is an ideal host for such a study for two reasons. Firstly, because the country has been creating biobanks at cancer care centers for about a decade, it now has stored up a large amount of high-quality tissue samples to study. Also, because Canada has a medical system where the state generally pays for care women have been treated "very homogenously" in cancer, and they've nearly all received the same first-line therapies.

For these reasons, the TFRI-funded researchers will not need to plan a prospective study, but instead will "actually go back in time and look through the tissues.

"We know what happened to the women, and how they responded to therapy, and we can ask if there are markers that would have allowed us to predict which ones would or would not have responded, said Mes-Masson.

The project aims to create a platform that will enable investigators across Canada, and internationally, who think that they have made ovarian cancer biomarker discoveries to rapidly validate them. Mes-Masson said that anyone who uses the platform will contribute their data to the resource.

"So, we're going to be able to compare markers head-to-head, and we'll be able to see if there are particular combinations of markers which are the most successful."

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