UBC Pathology Researchers awarded four of seven CCS Impact Grants: immodestly stated - a dominant performance

Dr. Chew Wei Memorial Professor of Gynaecologic Oncology
UBC Professor, Departments of Pathology and Lab Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynaecology

The Department of Pathology Medicine at UBC has always been a strong contributor to cancer research. Members of our department such as Professors Phillip Clement, David Owen and Andy Churg have helped shape the practice of pathology through astute clinical observations tied to practice changing solutions for the pathology community. Over the last 15 years great strength has arisen in basic and translational pathology research focussed on the cancer problem. British Columbia is now almost unique in the number of multidisciplinary cancer site-focussed research teams that have been developed and are effectively led by pathologists. Prominent examples being the lymphoma research team (Drs. Gascoyne and now Steidl), OVCARE (Drs Gilks and Huntsman, with Dr. Dianne Miller), breast cancer research teams (Aparicio; Nielsen) and the interdisciplinary pancreatic cancer research team (Dr. Schaeffer with Dr. Dan Renouf).

In 2018, of the seven grants awarded nationally, four were awarded to investigators from UBC’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

This leadership in cancer research was recently manifested in the results from the 2018 Canadian Cancer Society Impact Grant Competition. These Impact grants are the most prestigious, largest competitive grants awarded by the Canadian Cancer Society. In 2018, of the seven grants awarded nationally, four were awarded to investigators from UBC’s Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department.

The four successful PIs were Sam Aparicio, David Huntsman, Torsten Nielsen and Sohrab Shah. Their grants display the great diversity of successful cancer research which exists within our department. Sam Aparicio was funded to study the clonal dynamics in the evolution of breast cancer using single cell genomic methodologies that he has created through collaborations with Sohrab Shah, Marco Marra, Martin Hirst and Carl Hansen of UBC.

David Huntsman’s grant was focussed on developing biologically informed prevention and treatment strategies for clear cell carcinoma of the ovary through through deep integration of precursor lesions and modelling oncogenic phenotype with organoid cultures.

Torsten Nielsen’s grant continues his ground breaking efforts to understand the epigenetic basis of adolescent and young adult sarcomas and develop new diagnostic and treatment strategies.

Lastly Sohrab Shah received funding to determine the clinical relevance of the foldback inversion phenotype which is a genomic signature discovered through his pioneering next generation sequencing of high grade serous carcinomas and with a particular focus on how this genomic signature could be used to predict responses to platinum, PARP inhibitors and other common therapies. For their research the teams are leveraging local technology developments in single cell genomics and transcriptomics, including microscopy based spatial single cell ‘omics’ methods and international collaborations with Cambridge UK, Harvard, ETH in 3-D methods of tumour analysis. Since these grants were announced, Sohrab Shah has accepted a position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, which has expanded the collaborative network of the group. He will maintain a part time position at BC Cancer and his faculty status at UBC which will enable him to continue working on the Impact and other grants.

“As we were working on our applications we were all cognisant that we were competing against three close colleagues and collaborators. This was rather nerve racking” said Huntsman. “We were delighted to see that our grants represented four of the seven nationally selected for funding by the Canadian Cancer Society”. The research which we are undertaking is also made possible through the strong support we have received from the BC Cancer Foundation, the Vancouver General and UBC Hospital Foundation, and UBC itself.

Much of the work in these grants will be conducted by graduate students and other trainees within the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, including Jennifer Ji – an MD\PhD student who recently received a Vanier Scholarship for her efforts to use proteomics to better understand clear cell carcinomas and Kieran Campbell who was awarded a Banting scholarship for his work in computational methods for single cell analysis.

“This is an amazing accomplishment that clearly demonstrates the excellence of the individuals and their teams as well as the quality of the work being done. We hope that activities funded through these grants will form the nidus and opportunity for other interested department members to become engaged in cancer research.”, said Dr. Allard.