By Heather Blumenthal
Training the next generation of health researchers is part of the mandate for any research funding organization, and BioCanRx is no exception. It does all of the standard things that many research funding organizations do – such as supporting students at all stages as well as post-doctoral fellows.
BioCanRx does that, and does it very well. But, says Megan Mahoney, the network has some unique and innovative programs, including ones to develop highly qualified personnel (HQP) to work in biomanufacturing and others targeted at network investigators. As Director of Scientific Affairs and Training Programs at BioCanRx, Dr. Mahoney sees first-hand what cancer immunotherapy researchers and trainees need.
“It takes a whole network of experts to get from the lab to the bedside,” she says. “We offer very targeted training to fill the gaps that our HQP and network investigators identify.”
BioCanRx’s targeted approach starts young, at the high-school level. When it comes to these students, the goal for BioCanRx is to get these students interested in a career in cancer immunotherapy early. The organization works with Let’s Talk Science to offer hands-on lessons, lab tours, and host workshops in high schools with researchers to talk about what they do and engage the students. To date, BioCanRx has engaged more than 10,000 high-school students in these activities. Thanks to COVID-19, they have all moved – successfully – to a virtual setting. Even before the pandemic, though, Dr. Mahoney was working with Let’s Talk Science to develop ways to better engage rural and Indigenous youth, who are less likely to encounter a Let’s Talk Science workshop in their schools. The pandemic sped up that process and today BioCanRx has developed modules to send to teachers that they can use in their classrooms to encourage that engagement.
“It’s a really important opportunity to break some barriers,” Dr. Mahoney says.
The Summer Student Internship program is another flagship program that engages students early in their education. This 14-week paid internship program allows undergrad students to do hands-on research in a lab, along with everything else that entails, like lab meetings and presentations. Participating students are also invited to present posters about their work at BioCanRx’s annual scientific summit. You can meet this summer’s interns here.
“It’s a big investment on our part,” says Dr. Mahoney. “But offering these awards to attend the Summit brings students into the lab and makes them part of the entire immunotherapy community.”
Supporting translational research
Other training initiatives, namely in-depth workshops, are aimed more at network investigators. These help them navigate the unfamiliar waters they have to traverse in order to turn their discoveries into clinically available treatments and therapies. BioCanRx offers training in the steps involved in translational research, including understanding the preclinical process, engaging with regulators, setting up a clinical trial and more. BioCanRx develops these training opportunities based on the needs identified by its researchers.
“As network investigators move along the pipeline, our training moves with them,” says Dr. Mahoney. “Commercialization, intellectual property, licensing, attracting investors – these are all things that researchers have to know about.”
Biomanufacturing is an area of growing importance, not only for immunotherapy, but for all advanced biologic-based therapeutics, which use cells and/or viruses to treat disease. It plays a crucial role in translating lab discoveries into the clinic. Its importance has only been underscored by Canada’s inability to produce COVID-19 vaccines here in Canada.
BioCanRx has led the way in establishing both large-scale and point-of-care biomanufacturing facilities in Canada. But facilities can’t function without the HQP to operate them. In one of its most innovative training initiatives, BioCanRx is partnering with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and Ottawa’s Algonquin College to develop a micro-credential in good manufacturing practices, the system whereby therapeutic products are produced in a way that guarantees quality and safety. The micro-credential is set to launch this year.
This micro-credential program will complement another training program, a partnership between BioCanRx and program originator OHRI, called the Canadian Partnership for Research in Immunotherapy Manufacturing Excellence or CanPRIME. CanPRIME brings together the complementary offerings of college (Algonquin College) and university (University of Ottawa) training, with invaluable industry expertise, to generate fit-to-purpose HQP through paid, hands-on internships in a GMP biomanufacturing environment.
Recognizing the importance and impact of such a training program, its architect, Dr. Jennifer Quizi, Director of Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Operations at BioCanRx, is leading the programs’ expansion from the regional to the national level. CanPRIME 2.0, with significant financial and logistical support from BioCanRx, will leverage the organization’s point-of-care biomanufacturing initiative to provide access to this unique training program for upwards of 30 participants over the next three years at one of the four partner, point-of-care facilities across Canada. Importantly, CanPRIME 2.0 will create a much-needed pipeline of HQP armed with invaluable experience and marketability for future employment opportunities within the biomanufacturing sector.
BioCanRx has made engaging with patients a key part of its training program. Since 2017, BioCanRx has brought together patients and trainees in a Learning Institute at its annual Summit for Cancer Immunotherapy. Patients benefit tremendously from learning about the latest developments in cancer immunotherapy research. But trainees also benefit from the ability to learn about the reality of the cancer patient experience and about patients’ needs. Patients and trainees are paired in a “buddy system” to ensure each gets the most possible from the Summit. And once the Summit is over, they work together on a Dissemination Report to share their impressions with the wider immunotherapy community.
Brittany Umer helped to develop the Learning Institute and was one of the first trainees to participate in it while she was a doctoral student in medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta. That participation dramatically affected her career choices.
“I found this experience so valuable and fulfilling that I pursued a career in this area,” she says. “I now work in the pharmaceutical and healthcare consulting industry, where a main focus of my work is patient-centricity and including patient perspectives in these areas.”
The Learning Institute has proven to be one of the most popular training initiatives BioCanRx offers, says Dr. Mahoney, with the number of applications from trainees who want to learn from patients growing each year. “Both sides gain a significant understanding about being engaged in research,” says Dr. Mahoney.
Being in a position to build a generation of immunotherapy researchers ready to tackle the challenges of both today and tomorrow and help ensure Canada’s position as a leader in cancer immunotherapy is both exciting and satisfying, Dr. Mahoney says. From traditional support for students, to helping researchers through the translational pipeline to building Canada’s biomanufacturing expertise, BioCanRx is ensuring that Canada will continue to shine as an international leader in cancer immunotherapy.
Heather Blumenthal has been writing about health and health research for more than 20 years and never loses her fascination with the advances Canadian researchers are making.