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Ontario Institute for Cancer Research Plans Hires, Increased Commercial Activities

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in 2010 will grow its workforce, step up efforts to commercialize discoveries, and aim to fulfill research goals to be detailed in a second strategic plan set to be submitted next month to provincial officials, according to the institute's president and scientific director.

Tom Hudson told GenomeWeb Daily News that OICR anticipates adding more than 40 people to its current 180 staffers based at the institute's research hub in downtown Toronto, within the MaRS Discovery District, and a half floor of offices leased across from the research-office campus.

The hub — where the institute has centralized its genomics, informatics, and medicinal chemistry research operations — houses about 40 percent of OICR's total staff of about 500 people. The remaining 60 percent work at clinical trial sites and other research centers throughout Ontario, including in Ottawa, London, and Kingston.

"We definitely will have another 40 people recruited this year in informatics," Hudson said, adding that informatics will continue to account for about half of the work force at the hub. "We want to grow to be 400 to 500 people at the hub, but we need more space."

The new staffers could total of 55 principal investigators institute-wide by the end of 2011. To date, 35 PIs are in place, including five of the 10 PIs planned for informatics. For all disciplines at the institute, "I expect another 10 PIs in the next year, and another 10 the year after," Hudson added.

The new hiring continues a wave of workforce growth for OICR, which added its 100th hub employee in 2008, and continued expanding in part by hiring 18 medicinal chemists last year to collaborate with other investigators on four projects.

The hiring wave, and the growth of informatics, caused OICR to reach capacity at its main facility, most of the four floors totaling 80,000 square feet of labs and offices it leases within MaRS' south tower. Part of the space is subleased by OICR to the Structural Genomics Consortium, formed to determine the 3D structures of human proteins relevant to developing therapies against cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

Last year, the institute began moving informatics staffers into about 10,000 square feet of temporary leased office space one block east of the hub, at 790 Bay St. OICR's plan remains to expand into the MaRS district's planned $300 million, 770,000-square-foot second phase tower. Developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities broke ground on the project early in 2008, but halted work in November of that year, citing the recession.

Alexandria has not said when it plans to resume work on MaRS phase II. "We're waiting for news in the spring," Hudson said.

OICR was established in 2005 with a five-year, C$346-million (US$335.7 million) funding commitment from the government of Ontario. The province has stepped up research spending in recent years, reflected in the sharp growth in the institute's grant revenues through the state-funded Cancer Research Program and Ontario Cancer Research Network — to a combined C$73.3 million in 2008-09, from C$40.7 million in 2007-08, and C$19.7 million in 2006-07.

The programs accounted for most of OICR's revenues those years, which climbed from C$20.8 million in 2006-07 to C$43.1 million in 2007-08 and C$79.2 million in '08-'09. OICR's current annual budget is C$82 million.

Also last summer, Ontario's Ministry of Research and Innovation also chipped in C$900,000 from its Biopharmaceutical Investment Program, part of the province's Next Generation Jobs Fund, toward a collaboration by OICR, the Ontario Cancer Institute at Prince Margaret Hospital, and Pfizer Global Research and Development. The Pfizer unit will spend $6 million over three years to join the institute in identifying targets that could be used to diagnose, predict, or treat colorectal cancer under the collaboration, dubbed POP-CURE.

Hudson said OICR is in talks for additional collaborations but wouldn't discuss details.

'Valley of Death' Funding

Hudson said OICR will step up its Intellectual Property Development and Commercialization program, which awards up to $500,000 in pre-commercial "valley of death" funding toward commercializing intellectual property based at least partially on research carried out in the Canadian province.

"We've done demand studies, business plan development. We've enhanced a GMP facility for product development in biotherapeutics. In a way, I think what we're doing is adding value to the IP. We're de-risking it, so it makes it more attractive to the future investor," Hudson said. "We see our pipeline getting quite rich in terms of potential products, both in medical devices, but eventually also in our drug development pipeline — new therapeutics hits and compounds — and we wanted to have more expertise for trying to build up bigger companies."

Through the program, OICR has invested more than $5 million in 12 startups, many of which have been imaging concerns, since their technologies were furthest along to commercialize, said Hudson. Three of the startups funded by the IP commercialization program have been acquired by other Ontario companies, "and we have a lot more stuff coming," he added, declining to give details.

"I expect exponential growth in terms of outcomes," Hudson said. "We think we have potential to do large initiatives in commercialization. We're just at that step right now of building a plan."

Advancing the institute's commercialization effort will be the goal of two new executives whose appointments were announced Jan. 13. Franklin Stonebanks has been named chief commercial officer, succeeding Robert Sutherland, who is now senior investment officer. Stonebanks' duties include developing opportunities to collaborate with private equity and corporate strategic investors in oncology and accelerating early-stage R&D projects.

Stonebanks founded global life-science advisory firm Blackcomb Advisors; served as president and CEO of Cynvec; and held managerial positions in the venture funds of Johnson & Johnson and IBM, where he also led its healthcare and life science mergers-and-acquisitions effort.

In addition, Nicole Onetto has joined the institute as its new deputy director, succeeding Bob Phillips, who retired in November 2009. Onetto will oversee the Institute's support functions, and work with OICR's scientific leaders to determine the institute's strategic direction and research priorities.

Onetto was most recently senior VP and chief medical officer of ZymoGenetics, and earlier served as executive VP and chief medical officer of OSI Pharmaceuticals. She was international project leader for Taxol, and led the clinical development of Tarceva (erlotinib) for non-small cell lung cancer and pancreatic cancer in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute of Canada.

"We were looking for people who had actually done translation before. We feel we have a lot of strengths in the basic sciences ... but [less so in] how to actually find targets which are clinically useful, and actually get them to patients," Hudson said.

New Strategic Plan

Accelerating commercialization is also one of OICR's program priorities to be detailed next month, in a new strategic plan the institute will submit to Ontario officials. The others include personalized medicine and cancer, digitization-interpretation technologies such as IT systems focused on personalized medicine, and clinical issues related to unmet medical needs.

Hudson said OICR will continue working with two Ontario-funded groups, Cancer Care Ontario and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, on the Ontario Health Study, a 20-year study of 150,000 healthy residents of the province. The cohort study is designed to gather information researchers expect will better explain how genetic factors, environment, and behavior affect human health long-term.

The institute will not just focus on discovering and identifying biomarkers, Hudson said, but on testing their ability to detect cancer at early stages, and enhancing the capability of biomarkers to be imaged. The program would build on OICR's partnership with GE Healthcare, and MaRS' cluster of potential imaging partners.

"We're trying to label specific abnormalities of cancer through PET scans and MRIs as a way of monitoring cancer through early detection," Hudson said.

And as a co-founder and member of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, he added, OICR has also committed to resequencing 500 pancreatic cancer tumors to identify new targets and biomarkers to detect the disease, at the consortium's next-gen sequencing facility at MaRS. The facility sequences about 1 terabase of data per month.

Pancreatic cancer is among 50 types or subtypes of the disease under study by the ICGC. "We should be releasing some large-scale data sets in the spring," with plans to sequence 25,000 tumors over 10 years, Hudson added.

The facility uses both Life Technologies' SOLiD sequencers and Illumina's Genome Analyzer II systems, with OICR acquiring a Helicos Genetic Analysis System last August, and a month later becoming a pilot project customer of Complete Genomics.

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