Synthesis of Summit4CI – Part One

BioCanRx and the Summit for Cancer Immunotherapy

Professional curiosity and the usual marketing

As a person originally trained in cell biology and biochemistry, and a keen follower of developments around the life sciences (as well as energy and climate change), I was fairly sure that I would enjoy the 2023 Canadian Summit for Cancer Immunotherapy, called “Summit4CI”. This yearly Summit is hosted by BioCanRx, Canada’s leading research and development (R&D) network for cancer immunotherapy. It brings together labs across Canada collaborating as a Network of Centres of Excellence to “explore the latest progress in cancer immunotherapy from scientific, clinical, industry and patient perspectives.” Attendees include senior and junior university and hospital researchers, clinicians, industry executives, representatives from charities, relevant government units and hundreds of graduate and post-graduate students.  It is a heady, exciting event including the wise and the new.  Achievement of the objective to develop highly qualified personnel was very much in evidence — I don’t know the numbers, but maybe three hundred were there? Most of them were young. 

A personal mission

I had another reason for going, beside professional curiosity and marketing. In the past two years I have experienced a deeply unnerving bout of cancer myself.  And so have some of my friends and family.  When I read the vision statement of BioCanRx it felt like seeing the miraculous: “to turn all cancers into curable diseases.”

Having worked in the trenches of science and public policy for many years, I know there are timelines and hurdles involved. Maybe the goal will be accomplished later rather than sooner, but it is nevertheless hopeful and credible, given its source. 

As the initiative rolls out in the digital age, it is possible to skip the live conference, save money and view the many fascinating webinars and learning materials that BioCanRx has on its website. In fact, a study of the BioCanRx website is a notable undertaking on its own, and I confess I have not absorbed it all, though I have been visiting it frequently in the last nine months. One reason for the  slow going, I suspect, is that I practice a certain amount of “cancer avoidance” in my current, declared “cancer-free” state. A second reason is that I am already engaged on another satellite in the cancer galaxy, and that is informally participating and supporting patients and survivors registered with the online community of the Canadian Cancer Society.  A third reason is that researching cancer and cures is like a part time, unpaid job.

The boost I needed was to go to the live event.

Return on investment

Was it worth it?  For me it was.  At the Summit there were:

  • World-class speakers for three days, most of whom were live, but if beamed in there were no technical problems (at least not when I was present). I could not follow all of the technical discussions with precision — far from it, but hey, that’s true of my language training at our OLi-workshops, too. No time like the present to start trying.
  • Graduate students and post-docs to chat with, many of whom had assembled their research work for poster sessions, and some of whom were selected for awards. 
  • Presentations by “Patient Scholars” who form part of a knowledge translation model called the BioCanRx-Cancer Stakeholder Alliance Learning Institute.  These Patient Scholars have experienced cancer, and have also elected to become part of a cohort of learners trying to master the scientific and technical jargon, become knowledgeable about immunotherapy treatments and initiatives and then communicate their learning in language accessible to the public.
  • Exhibit tables of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sponsors, where live Q&A with attendees was invited.  Some of the processes, equipment and infrastructure presented also defied my present state of knowledge but in due course I may feel more at ease. I did not visit all of the tables, but happily I was pointed to two podcast series at the Stem Cell Technologies table: The Immunology Podcast, and The Stem Cell Podcast. 
  • Representatives of Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC), the instigator of Canada’s nascent “point-of-care” biotherapeutics industry developing at research hospitals across the country. Sixteen years old, the BMC manufactures more than a dozen cell and virus-based product lines for human clinical trials in Canada, the US, Europe and Asia. It is leading the first hands-on training program in Canada for biotherapeutics manufacturing, assembling the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, Algonquin College, Mitacs and BioCanRx in this effort. The existence of BMC is a testimony to the importance of knowledge translation for BioCanRx, which actively seeks to bridge the gap between research and application through clinical trials.  Time-constrained patients who are not responding to conventional approaches (chemo, radiation, surgery) or getting well permanently, may need to turn to clinical trials of experimental biotherapeutics.  

First of a series

This synthesis of Summit4CI is a beginning. Being diagnosed with cancer is a scary experience for a person and their loved ones. I know there are vast numbers of professional parties — health professionals, charities, government, academic, hospital — all trying to communicate aspects of cancer and its care, but despite this effort there are a lot of gaps. It appears like a jungle, even to one who is not a novice to the life sciences, nor public policy in Canada.

Undoubtedly it is as true for others as it is for me: researching cancer and cures is like a part time job. One solution is to divvy up the assignment. Reader(s): if you happen to be engaged in a study of the website of BioCanRx and want to discuss your findings with someone, contact me.  I am periodically checking other credible global sources on transitions in cancer care, so there is an opportunity for exchange of information in a small, on-line group format.

What’s next for part 2?  The story of a Canadian researcher at the Summit, who devised the lipid nanoparticle delivery mechanism vital for stopping Covid-19?  Recent breakthroughs for tumour infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs)?  CRISPR?  Barriers to precision oncology?  Help me decide.  

Feb 2nd, 2024

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