May 31, 2019

A new home for Sam Weiss brings new hope for brain cancer research

Philanthropy and collaboration is fuelling discovery at Clark H. Smith Brain Tumour Centre

It takes a tremendous motivating factor to uproot a long-established laboratory and voluntarily move it somewhere new.

For Dr. Samuel Weiss, PhD, the idea of collaborating in close proximity with more than a dozen investigators — including longtime colleagues Dr. Greg Cairncross, MD, and Dr. John Kelly, MD, PhD  — was all the incentive he needed.

Now a part of the Clark H. Smith Brain Tumour Centre, established through a generous gift from philanthropist Jane Smith nearly 15 years ago, the former director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) is excited about the future of his work and the hope he and his fellow researchers may be able to offer those who develop deadly brain cancers.

Collaboration space impacts thinking

“We need to start coming up with new ideas,” says Dr. Weiss, who believes the multi-disciplinary space holds the key to new discoveries. “It’s hearing it directly from those who are engaged with the patients, seeing the tumours, looking at them through the eyes of a pathologist, an oncologist, a neurosurgeon. The reality [of this collaborative space] impacts our thinking about what we can do scientifically,” Weiss says from the corner of his new lab, which is bustling with trainees dedicated to the same goal.

“This can be a unique brain tumour centre in Canada because of the full spectrum of science, genetics, informatics, surgery, oncology, and medicine that is here. I don’t believe they all exist in one place, from first diagnosis right through to recurring tumour and beyond, anywhere else in Canada.”

The centre is more than its physical space now. Through continued support over the years from Smith, who lost her husband Clark to brain cancer in the prime of his life, the Clark H. Smith Brain Tumour Centre has become the nucleus of a program poised to one day revolutionize treatment. Under the umbrella of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, it includes a tissue bank under the Clark Smith name, and more than 15 investigators with studies spanning detection, prevention and treatment.

Understanding of brain cancer leaps forward

“The program has really expanded beyond the walls of the physical centre that her gift constructed,” says Dr. Cairncross, director of the Charbonneau Cancer Institute, citing additional researchers based out of the Childhood Cancer Collaborative research labs, in the HBI and at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre at the Foothills Medical Centre. “It has been building for close to 15 years.”

During that time, treatments have improved modestly, but the understanding of brain cancer has taken giant leaps forward. So while current outcomes for individuals with certain types of brain cancer remain poor, and still rely heavily on surgery, radiation and chemotherapies, which have side effects, the Clark H. Smith Brain Tumour Centre collective is working toward more precise and personalized treatments that promise to be more effective and easier to take.

The centre has the ability to grow tumours and genomically characterize brain cancers for a more fundamental understanding, reclassifying them into molecular groups. Because molecular alterations are presumed to drive the disease in the first place, Cairncross hopes to turn the data into new treatments that are safe and effective.

“Treatments would be increasingly customized to the particular kind of brain cancer you have,” he says. “The challenge now is to turn knowledge into therapies, knowledge into preventive strategies, detection strategies, treatment strategies and support for patients who’ve had these illnesses.”

Turning knowledge into strategies

Dr. Kelly is a masterful neurosurgeon who prolongs the lives of his patients by removing tumours. The Clark H. Smith Centre allows him, along with investigators like Weiss and Cairncross and a host of innovative young trainees, to study those tumours with the intention of preventing another from forming.

“We’re already trying to think about how rapidly could we go from [Dr. Kelly’s] surgical suite to the lab, get a genetic understanding of an individual tumour, get some cells into culture and grow a version to test with drugs,” says Weiss. “We can see a day where we take out the primary tumour and study it fast enough to treat and prevent a recurrence.”

When that day comes, says Cairncross, it will be because of people like Jane and her son Tony Smith who offer resources crucial to researchers and essential in building areas of special focus that contribute to solving difficult problems and making a difference.

“We wouldn’t be here without that support. You have to have teams and they have to have infrastructure, they have to have a focal point, and they have to be inspired,” says Weiss, who made the groundbreaking discovery of neural stem cells nearly 30 years ago but only began working on tumours over the past decade.

“The Smith family inspired us. They want us to be difference-makers. The only way that’s going to happen is if we collaborate and share, and drive the knowledge to the clinic.”

 

Dr. J. Gregory Cairncross, MD, is a professor in the Departments of Clinical Neurosciences and Oncology, director of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

Dr. John Kelly, MD, is an assistant professor in the Departments of Clinical Neurosciences and Oncology, and is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute.

Dr. Samuel Weiss, PhD, is a professor in the Departments of Cell Biology & Anatomy and Physiology & Pharmacology. He’s the former director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at CSM. He is also the Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.