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As 40 local hockey players brave the elements on an outdoor rink just outside Sherwood Park, Alberta for the World’s Longest Hockey Game, they’ll be making a difference in the lives of cancer patients in Edmonton.
Over the course of more than 10 days and nights of non-stop shinny, the game, which began on Feb. 4, World Cancer Day, will support what may be the most important milestone of any potential new treatment: a clinical trial.
Clinical trials represent the last stage before new therapies can be submitted for approval from governing health authorities and make their way into clinical practice. Funds from this year’s marathon game will bolster a clinical trial for a precision cancer drug discovered by University of Alberta cell biologist Luc Berthiaume.
The drug, PCLX-001, has shown positive results against breast, lung, bladder and pancreas cancers. Current studies show it has the greatest effect in blood cancers resistant to standard treatment by shutting down abnormal chemical signalling in many common cancers and triggering those cells to die, while sparing the normal, healthy cells.
“If it works, we’ve got to prove it works. We can’t let a good thing fail,” said John Mackey, U of A oncology professor and director of clinical trials at the Cross Cancer Institute, who is leading the PCLX-001 clinical research team.
“Every year in Alberta, we have a few thousand people die of cancer. And every month that goes by means that if we have an effective drug and we haven’t moved it forward, we could have dropped that number. Our goal is to get it over the finish line as quickly as we can.”
Funds raised from the game will help cover the cost for the PCLX-001 drug, examinations, patient care and an ongoing analysis of how well the drug is working.
Mackey and Berthiaume have spent much of the last decade driving forward work on PCLX-001, culminating in a clinical trial that will begin this spring concurrently in three Canadian cancer centres: the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, the B.C. Cancer Centre in Vancouver and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.
The Edmonton trials will be undertaken by associate professor of oncology Randeep Sangha and involve upwards of 60 patients with lymphoma or solid tumours. The study will combine Phase 1 and Phase 2A clinical trials, testing for drug safety and drug efficacy. If successful, the team would then pursue a Phase 3 clinical trial, comparing the safety and effectiveness of PCLX-001 against the current standard treatment.
The study for PCLX-001 is the first time a potential new cancer drug coming from Alberta scientists has reached the clinic in more than 30 years. Mackey says in the next year, two more new, made-in-Alberta cancer-fighting innovations are expected to make the leap to clinical trials, signalling a major advance in bringing Alberta scientific ingenuity closer to patients.
Alberta has a fertile health innovation ecosystem focused on clinical trials. Lawrence Richer, vice-dean of research for the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and director of the Northern Alberta Clinical Trials and Research Centre (NACTRC), is responsible for building capacity for clinical trials in the Edmonton region, improving the quality, quantity and efficiency of clinical research.
“Clinical trials are the absolute necessary gold standard approach to having an innovation reach humans,” said Richer.
According to Richer, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the search for vaccines and treatments have emphasized the importance of well-run clinical trials for many in the public. Since the pandemic began, many people have come forward asking how they can participate in clinical trials.
“People are curious about research when it’s relevant to them. And COVID-19 has made research relevant to absolutely everyone in this province,” said Richer.
Last summer, Be The Cure – a joint initiative between the U of A, University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services to educate Albertans on how to be a part of health research – launched a campaign to raise awareness about how to participate in COVID-19-related clinical trials. Thousands of Albertans visited the website for more information and many are now active contributors to local research efforts. Richer says their help is invaluable, and he hopes public interest in participating in clinical research keeps growing long after the pandemic passes.
“It keeps highly qualified personnel employed, it gives jobs to Albertans and it allows for innovative treatments to be available in Alberta,” said Richer. “If you were sick and you wanted access to a certain clinical trial, you’d want it to be in your hometown, not in Toronto, right? That’s why we want these trials to be here.”
For Mackey, the next step in the work to bring PCLX-001 to patients couldn’t be more exciting. But it comes with duty and high expectations.
“People are willing to not only put their dollars on the line, but the trial participants are putting their lives in our hands,” he said. “There’s a huge responsibility. We have to do this right.”
If all goes according to plan, cancer patients will begin PCLX-001 treatments in Edmonton by the end of May. As local hockey players do their part in February to help defray the approximate $6-million cost of the trial through their fundraising efforts, Mackey knows their drive and determination on the ice will give doctors one more shot at helping patients in the clinic.
“Community support of the World’s Longest Hockey Game will provide hope to people who would otherwise die of their cancer – despite all the best known treatments – the ones where we’ve already given our best shot and their cancer is still standing,” explained Mackey.
“These are patients who’ve run out of other options. They will now have a better chance of a good outcome and more time with their families, friends and loved ones. Our hope is that we will find a safe and effective dose of the drug in this first trial, and that it will actually show we can help people.”
| By Ross Neitz for © Troy Media