Four researchers participating in the Leucégène project offer a positive assessment of the first decade of work on a deadly form of leukemia.
“It’s time to stop playing around with mice.”
Josée Hébert had had enough when she made that remark to her colleague Guy Sauvageau. An immuno-oncologist at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, Hébert had seen far too many patients succumb to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a highly aggressive blood cancer.
Sauvageau had been researching the disease – with excellent results – in his laboratory. Hébert felt that the time had now come to work with the actual men and women suffering from AML, whose devastating toll was being acutely felt in her unit at the MRH.
“The survival rate was barely 25 per cent and existing treatments were invasive, and even toxic,” Sauvageau recalled during a breakfast chat organized Feb. 4 for World Cancer Day at Université de Montréal’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC).
While researchers had had some success with stem cell transplants, the rate of rejection was high, as was the risk of recurrence of the cancer. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of a new major initiative to fight AML.
And so the Leucegene research project was born.
Leucegene was innovative, combining clinical research, bioinformatic applications and deep knowledge to build up a bank of cell samples from people suffering from AML so scientists could better characterize the disease.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, some 500 patients have agreed to participate in the establishment of the cell-sample bank, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Sauvageau, for his part, has no regrets about abandoning his mice back in the lab.
“We’ve gained a much better understanding of this disease over the past 10 years," he told science reporter Yanick Villedieu, moderator of the breakfast chat at UdeM.
"AML is relatively rare, accounting for roughly one per cent of cancer cases, but it’s often fatal. About 1,500 new cases are diagnosed each year in Canada. We have high hopes for an effective therapy that will alleviate the suffering of a great many patients.”
Interdisciplinary teamwork is key
Hébert also believes that the discoveries of the past decade will have a rapid impact on mortality rates. “We’re right at the patient’s bedside,” she explained.
“After a long period of no significant improvements in the treatment of AML between 1973 and 2017, all of a sudden we’re seeing huge progress. Eight new molecules have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a first was recently approved in Canada."
The work carried out at the IRIC owes a great deal to the close collaboration between Sébastien Lemieux, an UdeM professor of bioinformatics, and Philippe Roux, an expert in cell signalling and proteomics. While Roux’s research focuses on the proteins involved in the complex process of cancer progression, Lemieux seeks to harness the potential of artificial intelligence for oncological research.
“Imagine a column of 500 cell lines and 20,000 human gene – for each patient, that means over 50 gigaoctets of data," Lemieux said. "We need to be able to interpret these data in order for them to be useful."
The IRIC project required massive funding from major granting agencies such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Fonds de recherche du Québec ‒ Santé. However, the researchers also had to contend with the vagaries of a change in government, which left the Leucegene project without funding for several months.
“That’s where philanthropy can step in and play a major role that’s not always fully understood,” said Sauvageau.
Speakers at the breakfast conference highlighted the fact that the IRIC’s structure allows researchers to collaborate on a daily basis. According to researchers, this type of interdisciplinary proximity is key to producing effective results that will never be matched by decentralized collaborations.
“Sure, we attend conferences together and communicate with our colleagues abroad,” Sauvageau said. “But our weekly meetings are critical for advancing our research.”