Mar 2015

What’s Sam Weiss excited about?

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Recently, we asked several of Canada’s leading stem cell scientists to tell us about what they think will be the next big thing in regenerative medicine. Where do they see things going? What are they excited about? For today’s final instalment, we interviewed Dr. Samuel Weiss is a Professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Departments of Cell Biology and Anatomy and Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Calgary and Director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. In 1992, he discovered adult neural stem cells. He shared his thoughts on cancer stem cells (cells that can initiate tumours and that cause cancer to return) and advances being made in brain cancer research. 

There is a significant move afoot to apply the knowledge we have gained to understand the stem cell biology of brain tumours. We learned a lot about normal neural stem cells and then there was a big flurry after brain tumour stem cells were identified (in 2004) by Peter Dirks (University of Toronto) and others. Now we’re entering an era of greater sophistication in terms of understanding of the various cell types that make up a brain tumour, because there is still a need to fundamentally understand how a very small number of cells, even a single cell, can end up producing a massive tumour.

That’s part of where I’m going. My lab, working with many others, has also been involved in the development and testing of new compounds. And we have the first compound that we identified in the lab as being very powerful in terms of its ability to block brain tumour initiating cells in cell culture — as well as prolonging survival of xenografted animals – is moving into a clinical trial.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, what’s exciting is that we published the paper in Clinical Cancer Research in October and simultaneously announced that AstraZeneca had agreed to test it in the clinic — and in Canada first. It will be led out of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre by Dr. Warren Mason. We are able to collapse the timeframe from publishing our results to testing them in the clinic to less than a year. It shows that we are developing a strategy, based on the science and based on cancer stem cells, to help accelerate testing of new compounds for cancer.

We all know that many compounds need to be tested before a new one is likely to have a big impact, especially in a heterogeneous disease like brain cancer, but at the very least, the approach, which was championed initially by Dr. David Kaplan (The Hospital for Sick Children) through a Stem Cell Network grant and then by the Terry Fox Research Institute, has allowed us to begin bringing compounds to the clinic in a timely fashion.

That’s a predictor of some of the things to come. In fact, we have another (compound) that is very close. We’re working with a biotech company in the States and finalizing the last series of experiments.  We will be meeting with them in Chicago in June at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meetings and there may be a second compound in the clinic before the end of the year.

Five to 10 years ago, you would never have suggested that laboratory-based results would be moving from the lab to clinical testing in months rather than years.

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