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Collaboration – Key to Success
Evolution of Cancer Research in NS

“It is truly gratifying to see a strategy unfold as intended,” said Dr. Gerry Johnston, a key architect and visionary in developing Nova Scotia’s comprehensive cancer research strategy.

Dr. Johnston, Professor of Microbiology & Immunology and Associate Dean of Research at Dalhousie University, is known and respected locally, nationally and internationally for his passion for cancer research, his ability to bring the right people and organizations together to lobby for funding as well as his interest and expertise in mentoring young researchers.

GerryJohnston“In the 80s and 90s there were only a handful of dedicated cancer researchers in Nova Scotia who had a few hundred thousand dollars in grant money,” he said. “Today we have dozens of dedicated cancer researchers who, collectively, have more than $8 million a year in funding.”

The growth is the result of a conscious decision and effort by many individuals and organizations including Cancer Care Nova Scotia, the Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society – Nova Scotia Division, National Cancer Institute of Canada and others.

This collaborative approach to building capacity and momentum has proven very successful, evident in the tremendous growth in recruitment of senior and junior researchers, endowed chairs amd the number of grants awarded.

The foundation for growth began in 1998 with the establishment of Cancer Research and Education (CaRE) program by the Canadian Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute of Canada. Its purpose: to support trainees working with cancer researchers.“This was fairly small, but significant,” noted Dr. Johnston. “Later that year Cancer Care Nova Scotia was established and part of its mandate was to build research capacity.”

A $12.5 million bequest from Beatrice Hunter in 1999, however, was a catalyst for growth. The bequest, in memory of Mrs. Hunter’s parents, Dr. Owen and Mrs Pearle Cameron, to the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation provided the impetus to establish the Dalhousie Cancer Research Program (DCRP), a joint initiative of Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine, the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation and Cancer Care Nova Scotia. The bequest was placed in the Cameron Endowment Fund, which generates $500,000 a year for cancer research at Dalhousie Medical School.

Ten years later the DCRP evolved into the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute whose partners include DCRP founding members, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Atlantic Region, and the QEII Hospital Foundation, as well as many smaller agencies and local businesses. Its mandate is to foster a more powerful and productive cancer research effort not just in Nova Scotia but throughout the Atlantic region.

The Hunter Insitute is home to the present Cancer Research Training Program, which developed as an expansion of CaRE. To date, 90 trainees have completed the CRTP. The Institute has also attracted increasing funding support for research itself, extending from bench research through to clinical studies and research into patient support. Since its establishment in 2009, the Hunter Institute has distributed approximately $2.5 million to cancer researchers and cancer research trainees in Atlantic Canada.

“In the past two years, we’ve travelled across the region to meet with cancer researchers, funding partners, and others to determine how we can assist in making the Atlantic Canadian cancer research community even stronger,” said Dr. Jonathan Blay, Scientific Director of the Institute.

“We create opportunities for engagement and communication by organizing events such as our monthly seminar series and an annual cancer research conference, which allow cancer researchers to better appreciate the full spectrum of cancer research taking place in our region. It opens the door to possibilities for collaborative research that might not otherwise be possible. We’re also able to facilitate greater access to opportunities and funding that will help our researchers have greater impact in Nova Scotia and beyond.”

The establishment of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute reflects the collaborative nature of researchers here, noted Dr. Johnston. “It’s a very collegial community. The fact that we’re small could be viewed as a weakness, but it’s really a strength. We know each other, and we’re close to each other. There is a lot of respect for one another and a willingness to interact and collaborate.”

In Nova Scotia, two areas of research stand out – basic science and population health, said Dr. Johnston.

Dr. Patrick Lee, for example, is the Dr. Owen and Mrs. Pearle Cameron Chair in Basic Cancer Research. He was the first to discover that a naturally occurring virus – human reovirus – can selectively infect and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Reovirus-based cancer therapies are now being tested in clinical trials in the United States and the United Kingdom. Dr. Lee and his research team are exploring the underlying molecular mechanisms that give the virus its cancer-killing powers.

Dr. Louise Parker, the Canadian Cancer Society (Nova Scotia Division) Endowed Chair in Population Cancer Research, is heading the largest cancer study ever undertaken in Atlantic Canada. The Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health study is recruiting 30,000 volunteers from across the region to take part in a long-term population health study to understand the genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors behind our high cancer rates. Findings will help to shed light on the causes of cancer and lead to better methods of detection, treatment, and prevention.

Well-established researchers like Drs. Lee and Parker in turn, attract more researchers – and help improve the quality of life for all Nova Scotians, noted Dr. Johnston. “This creates a great environment to recruit and retain high-quality cancer health professionals. People want to be part of this vibrant environment.”

“We have a lot of momentum,” he added. “We have a huge opportunity here; Nova Scotia is a great place to invest in – and to do - cancer research.