Agnico Eagle’s Funding Poised to Change World of Cancer Diagnosis, Treatment & Therapy

November 03, 2022

Beyond Chemotherapy Grand Challenge supports first-in-patient clinical trials at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

One of the longest journeys in cancer research is from the bench to the bedside – from an idea or discovery made in the research lab to the successful treatment of a patient in a medical setting.

It is a journey fraught with challenges. It can be the exciting culmination of decades of scientific work that gives hope to so many or the difficult end to a once promising clinical study.

The experts at Princess Margaret (PM) Cancer Centre know all about such challenges and, thanks to Agnico Eagle’s Grand Challenge’s funding, they are poised to take the next step in the journey and deliver the” first-in-human” clinical trials of porphysomes – nanoparticles discovered over 10 years ago by Dr, Gang Zheng at the Centre’s research lab that could change the world of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and therapy. 

First Step in the Journey

Porphysomes have unique properties that have the potential to improve cancer treatments. Since they are organic, these ultrasmall nanoparticles are not harmful to patients and, because they are multi-functional, they can do many different things and treat many different types of cancers. Thus, the same porphysomes identify (diagnose) a tumour as well as deliver therapy (treatment) to destroy it. This duality is known as theranostics, a combination of the terms therapeutics and diagnostics.

Porphysomes have the natural ability to fluoresce (emit red light under blue-light illumination) and to travel selectively to a cancer, which allows surgeons to better visualize the disease, diagnose it and remove it completely with minimal damage to normal tissues. Active porphysomes can also be heated by light to deliver targeted treatment that will destroy the tumour, as well as to deliver chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs.

Game-Changing Potential

While the exciting properties and potential of porphysomes have been successfully tested in the research lab and in tumors in different animal models, they have yet to be tested in humans. That's where Agnico Eagle’s Beyond Chemotherapy Grand Challenge comes in, led by Drs. Amit Oza, Jonathan Irish, and Brian Wilson through their project, “First-in-Human Porphysomes Nanotechnology for Precision Tumor Ablation and Surgical Guidance."

Agnico Eagle’s funding will help the PM Cancer Centre launch its first clinical studies in human patients, starting with patients with advanced ovarian cancers then moving into prostate, lung, head/neck cancers, and other gynecological cancers.

These treatments will be minimally invasive, Dr. Irish stresses. “It’s all about precise and targeted therapy. Being able to see the cancer, target it and destroy it while avoiding damage to any surrounding normal tissue, is the balance we’re always trying to achieve to extend survival with good quality of life for our patients.”

If proven effective in the clinical trials, the impact of this project could be game changing. “In the next five to ten years, we could add a fifth pillar of treatment for cancer – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and theranostic nanomedicine,” says Dr. Irish.

While, globally, many other cancer centres are studying other types of nanoparticles, the PM Cancer Centre’s preference for precision medicine is for porphysomes. “It is a made-in-Canada technology,” says Dr. Wilson, “that will put Canada on the map for using nanotechnology in cancer treatment. If our clinical trials are successful, it will have a major positive impact on cancer patients and represent a real paradigm shift in nanomedicine.”

Investing in World-Leading Cancer Research

The team stresses that Princess Margaret’s standing as one of the five leading cancer research centres in the world is not accidental.

Dr. Oza states, “Our cancer program is one of the strongest, nationally, and internationally, in part due to philanthropic support like Agnico Eagle’s. In fact, it would not be possible for us to take this home-grown technology and cross that finish line without Agnico Eagle’s funding. We’re now in a position to take this exciting technology and, very carefully and with rigor, assess its effectiveness, safety and tolerability.”

Next Steps in the Journey

After 10 years of laboratory research, and now building evidence in companion animals with cancer in collaboration with the Ontario Veterinary College that porphysome therapy is safe and effective, the PM Cancer Centre team is now at the threshold of moving fully into human clinical trials.

As the team translates this work into patients, it must meet all Health Canada regulatory steps and requirements to prove the safety and effectiveness of the treatment in different cancers. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the team is aiming to conduct “first-in-patient” human studies to ensure the treatment can be done safely as it moves from animal models to patients.

Dr. Oza says, “Once we show “proof of principle”, we’ll quickly gain momentum for our project. Then, we will conduct bigger studies, enroll more patients. No doubt, we will face more challenges, but with them comes hopefully more growth and opportunities.”

Dr. Irish concludes, “This is a great story of discovery and investment in Canadian research and science. Agnico Eagle’s foresight to invest in cancer research is making the PM Cancer Centre competitive and keeping us a global leader. Your support will push us across the line to first-in-human, first-in-the-world status, using a nanoparticle discovered here in Canada. This is truly a world event in cancer research.”