Introducing the winners of BioCanRx’s 2021 Summer Studentships

BioCanRx is happy to introduce the 17 undergraduate students chosen from across Canada through a competitive application process to be part of our Summer Studentship Program. The program’s goal is to inspire the next generation of highly qualified personnel to pursue research in cancer immuno-oncology. Undergraduate students receive funding to conduct research with BioCanRx’s network investigators. This opportunity provides students with a practical, hands-on research experience. See the biographies for each of the 2021 summer students below!


Name: Alison Wu


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Scott McComb, University of Ottawa / National Research Council of Canada


Project Title: Engineering CAR T-cells using self-cutting and integrating CRISPR plasmids (SCIPs)


Profile: I am a third-year student in the Translational and Molecular Medicine program at the University of Ottawa. This summer, I am excited to join Dr. Scott McComb’s cancer immunology lab at the National Research Council, where I will be involved in cellular engineering to improve CAR T-cell therapies.


CAR T-cells have proven to be a highly promising therapeutic strategy for treating cancer, but the use of lentiviral vectors to induce CAR expression still poses several challenges with reference to production, scale-up, cost, and efficiency. Therefore, my project will focus on optimizing a novel plasmid-based gene delivery system called self-cutting and integrating CRISPR plasmids (SCIPs). SCIPs provide a simple yet efficient alternative to lentiviral gene delivery and will help improve CAR T-cell production.


In the future, I hope to enter an MD/PhD program and to pursue a dual career in translational research and clinical care. This exciting summer research opportunity will allow me to strengthen my lab skills and to learn about cutting-edge biomedical technologies.


Outside of the lab, I also work in recreation therapy in long-term care, hold a leadership position in the STEMNet Undergraduate Mentorship Program, and volunteer in my community as a piano teacher and a French tutor.  



Name: Anna Nicolela


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Jeanette Boudreau, Dalhousie University


Project Title: Treating ovarian cancer with STING-activated natural killer cells


Profile: I have just completed my second year studying Life Sciences at Queen’s University. This summer, I will be working in Dr. Jeanette Boudreau’s lab at Dalhousie University. In my free time, I enjoy playing tennis, drawing, and painting.


Dr. Boudreau’s research focuses on the use of natural killer (NK) cells for developing immunotherapeutic treatments of cancer. Recently, the lab has shown that ovarian cancer (OC) tumors infiltrated with NK cells are associated with improved overall survival (manuscript under review). The goal of my project is to test the effectiveness of NK cells at killing OC cells when stimulated by STING agonists. I will be measuring NK cell reactivity in tumor microenvironments that have been solely treated with STING agonists and ones that have been treated with both STING agonists and platinum-taxane chemotherapy.


After my undergraduate degree, I plan on continuing to conduct research in the fields of immunology and oncology, as these areas are a particular interest of mine. I am very grateful to BioCanRx and Dr. Boudreau for this incredible opportunity. The summer studentship will allow me to gain valuable hands-on experience in a lab setting that I’m sure will be advantageous in future graduate studies.



Name: Ashley Hagerman (she/they)


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Michele Ardolino, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI)


Project Title: Characterizing the efficacy of VSVD51 encoding the “super-IL-2” cytokine in murine models of cancer


Profile: Hello! I am a fourth year student at the University of Ottawa in the Biopharmaceutical Science program, specializing in Genomics. Back in January 2020, I completed my first CO-OP term at the Ardolino Lab. Coming full circle, this summer’s research project will be my last CO-OP term, and I’m so excited to complete this project as part of BioCanRx’s Summer Studentship Program. Outside of my research interests, I enjoy playing the piano, hitting the slopes for some downhill skiing in the winter, and water skiing in the summer!


For this project, I will assess the efficacy of an engineered VSVD51 encoding the “super-IL-2” cytokine, H9. H9 contains point mutations that increase the binding affinity of IL-2 for its receptor subunits, selectively activating NK and T cells. This shows striking benefits for the anti-tumor immune response. The project aims to test the preclinical efficacy of a novel oncolytic virus through intra-tumoral administration of VSVD51-H9 variants in orthotopic and ectopic murine models of cancer.


I am an aspiring research scientist with an interest in biotherapeutics and the molecular mechanisms of disease, so this project is right up my alley! As my first experience working with animal models, this project allows me to understand and appreciate animal use in research and prepares me for success in my future research endeavours.



Name: Ayni Sharif


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Drs. Dean Fergusson and Manoj Lalu, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Application and Evaluation of a Framework for Patient Engagement in Laboratory Research


Profile: I recently completed my Honours Bachelor in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ottawa and I will be continuing at uOttawa with a Master’s in Epidemiology in the fall. When I am not busy with research and school, you can find me spending my time on a spin bike, reading, or just searching the web. I try to make use of as many indoor activities, especially with the pandemic!


I will be working on implementing patient engagement at early phases of research. Patient involvement has become more prevalent in clinical research; however, it remains rare in preclinical/laboratory-based studies. Through the summer, I will apply and refine a novel framework, and gain insight into patient engagement within basic science. The aim of the project is to demonstrate the benefits of patient engagement initiatives at the preclinical stage of research.


A research interest of mine is translational (bench to bedside) clinical studies. Integrating patient engagement is a key aspect in connecting and bridging the gap that exists between preclinical and clinical research. Thus, this opportunity and project will provide an incredible learning experience in furthering my research career.



Name: Benjamin Brakel


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Sheila Singh, McMaster University


Project Title: Development of a targeted immunotherapy against recurrent glioblastoma


Profile: I have just finished my third year in the Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization program at McMaster University and will be conducting my summer research under the supervision of Dr. Sheila Singh. During my spare time, I enjoy playing guitar, sports and spending time with family and friends.


In my research, I will be focusing on glioblastoma, an incurable brain tumour with short survival times despite aggressive standard of care treatment. Recurrence of this tumour is driven by therapy-resistant glioblastoma stem cells, which our lab has found to highly express a member of the axonal guidance pathway on the cell surface in contrast to healthy brain cells. This summer, I will be developing and validating an immunotherapy to target this protein in hopes of eliminating these cells.


My future aspirations involve both clinical and research aspects of medicine, complimenting my scientific curiosity and desire to help patients using science to solve problems clinical medicine cannot. Developing an immunotherapy while engaging with pioneers of the field and cutting-edge technologies will help me advance towards a career of important scientific contributions that may one day benefit patients.



Name: Elena Moss


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Brad Nelson, BC Cancer Deeley Research Centre


Project Title: Detecting immune synapses in high grade serous ovarian cancer to enable the design of more effective immunotherapies


Profile: I have just finished my third year at the University of Victoria, where I am majoring in mathematics. This summer, I am excited to be joining Dr. Nelson’s lab at the Deeley Research Centre. When I am not studying, I enjoy hiking, climbing and camping around Victoria. I also work as a youth climbing coach.


Dr Nelson’s group has previously found that ovarian cancers are frequently infiltrated by lymphocytes (TIL) that convey an improved prognosis. However, not all of these TIL actively recognize the tumor cells; many of them may act only as bystanders. Dr Nelson’s group has found that we can visualize an “immune synapse” between the TIL and their targets using fluorescence imaging. My project will investigate whether these synapses are indicative of T cell engagement in tumor. We will be applying statistical and machine-learning methods to thousands of previously collected histological images, which in turn could provide a new measure of anti-tumor immunity in patients.


The experiences and skills provided by this internship will prepare me for research in graduate school and allow me to better understand the mathematical contributions to be made in cancer research. I am looking forward to learning more about the field and developing my research interests in medicine.



Name: Kristy Ng


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Rozanne Arulanandam, Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Validation of the prime-boost immunotherapy consisting of anti-DEC-205 prime and VSVd51 boost carrying the PBK antigen as a treatment for DDLS in patients


Profile: I am entering my final year of studies at the University of Ottawa in the Biochemistry program, with a specialization in Microbiology and Immunology. This summer I will be conducting my internship in Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo’s laboratory at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. When I am not in the lab, I spend my time training in ballet, baking, and watching movies.


My summer project focuses on validating the heterologous prime-boost vaccination comprised of the anti-DEC-205 prime and VSVd51 boost carrying the novel PBK antigen. PBK is found in several murine sarcoma cell lines that can be used as an endogenous target to evaluate this therapy in a murine model of sarcoma. This study will establish the foundation for development of a novel target immunotherapy for dedifferentiated liposarcoma and will advance treatment of this sarcoma subtype.


I have always been interested in virology and immunology. This summer position is an invaluable internship since I will be able to gain important skills and experiences in my field of interest. I am also grateful for this opportunity as it will allow me to contribute to cutting-edge and crucial research in cancer biotherapeutics.



Name: Lauren Wilkinson


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Kevin Hay, BC Cancer, part of the Provincial Health Services Authority


Project Title: Improving CAR T-cell persistence by overcoming cellular senescence


Profile: I just completed the third year of my Bachelor of Medical Sciences degree, with an Honours Specialization in Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences and Major in Pharmacology, at the University of Western Ontario. Besides my studies, I enjoy hiking and skiing at the mountains in Vancouver as well as jogging through the parks in London.


This summer I will be working in the Hay Lab, which focuses on the preclinical development of novel chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to improve efficacy and reduce toxicity. As such, my project involves assessing the efficacy of a CAR T-cell construct expressing telomerase under the control of a doxycycline- inducible promoter. This will give a better understanding of the role of cellular senescence in CAR T-cell persistence. The specific aims for this project will focus on the development two assays to support this project: a droplet digital Telomere Repeat Amplification assay (ddTRAP) to measure telomerase activity and a repetitive stimulation growth assay.


In the future, I wish to pursue a career in oncology as both a researcher and oncologist. This experience will therefore be invaluable in helping me to amass the interpersonal and technical skills required to succeed in future research and clinical endeavours.



Name: Makenzy Kennedy


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. John Bell, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Improving the targeting and cytotoxic capacity of engineered small extracellular vesicles


Profile: I have just completed my second year at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota where I am working towards a Bachelor of Exercise Science. As a varsity swimmer, my free time is fairly limited but I am an avid reader and enjoy hiking and hanging out with my friends and family whenever possible. This summer I am looking forward to working with Dr. Bell’s lab to investigate the potential for engineering small extracellular vesicles (sEV) to kill cancer cells.


Small EV are normally produced by most cell types to facilitate transfer of RNA and protein between distant cell populations. Dr Bell’s group and others have determined that EVs can be selectively targeted to tumor cells for the delivery of therapeutic cargo. In particular, the Vesicular Stomatitis Virus glycoprotein (VSV-G), which can be engineered to include therapeutic proteins, localizes to sEV. In an effort to further develop this promising technology my research project will aim to identify candidates that improve tumor targeting and delivery of therapeutics. This will involve engineering and screening a variety of potential plasmids constructs prior to testing efficacy in a viral backbone. These findings will help aid the further development of sEV as an immunotherapeutic strategy.


I am excited for this upcoming challenge and the opportunity to collaborate with experienced scientists working in immunotherapy which will allow me to learn more about cutting-edge cancer research.



Name: Maryam Echaibi


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Targeting cytokine and chemokine factor regulation of NK cell killing of ovarian cancer cells


Profile: I am a fourth-year biomedical science student, minoring in computer science at the University of Ottawa. I am also an international student, so in my free-time, I like to explore the Ottawa-Gatineau region and volunteer with various associations where I get to widen my social network while contributing to a good cause.


This summer I will be working at Dr. Vanderhyden’s lab where they have revealed, through ovarian cancers analysis, an epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT)-associated shift in the cytokine/chemokine expression profile. EMT is the process by which cancer cells metastasize. Another study proved that a specific target of the shifted cytokine/chemokine are NK cells. My work consists of analysing datasets of ovarian cancer cells as well as identifying receptor-ligand pairs that are predicted to meditate cancer cell influence on NK cells. The findings will confirm the ability of EMT-associated cytokines/chemokines to reduce immune cell killing of ovarian cancer cells, thereby identifying possible therapeutic targets for future evaluation in-vivo.


Finding a therapy against cancer was only a dream 10 years ago, but now, it is a reality thanks to BioCanRx summer studentship. This opportunity will allow me to acquire valuable skills and techniques which will certainly strengthen my lab experience and prepare me for further research experiences in my academic career. I am looking forward to contributing to the immunotherapy of ovarian cancer.



Name: Nikesh Chander


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Dean Fergusson, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Identifying Effect Modifiers of CAR-T Cell Therapeutic Efficacy: A Systematic Review and Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis


Profile: I have just completed my second year of undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa in the Biomedical Science program. I will be conducting my summer research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute under the supervision of Dr. Dean Fergusson. In my free time I enjoy playing and coaching hockey, as well as playing instruments and other sports.


While CAR-T cell trials demonstrate varying degrees of effectiveness in the general population, the reasoning remains unclear. It is possible that there are specific characteristics about either the people, disease status, or of the therapy itself that are leading to differences in effects between patients. To explore potential effect modifiers of CAR-T cell therapy, my project seeks to perform a systematic review and IPD meta-analysis of CAR-T cell therapy in patients with hematologic malignancies.


I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, as I will be able to participate in research that can improve clinical treatment and decision-making. By being exposed to the intrinsic workings of systematic reviews and advanced meta-analytical techniques in the field of hematologic oncology and CAR-T cell therapy, this placement will allow me to develop as a researcher and prepare me for a future career in biomedical research.



Name: Reagan MacDonald


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Rebecca Auer, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Canadian Cancer Trials Group IC.8 (IMM101) Study


Profile: My name is Reagan MacDonald, and I am a Canadian citizen who is currently completing my second year of a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Biology at the University of Stony Brook in New York. I am also a member of the school’s NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving program. During the remainder of my spare time, I like to go to my cottage and spend time outside and read.


Auer Laboratory is currently investigating whether stimulating the innate immune system of cancer patients with a non-infectious bacteria IMM101 will reduce incidents of respiratory disease. This study is very topical as patients with compromised immune systems are at an increased mortality risk due to COVID-19. This will also investigate whether this vaccination strategy will stimulate Natural Killer cells which are incredibly important in the body’s antiviral defence.


Cancer research has been a large focus for my education as I know many family members who were affected by this disease. I wish to one day be a part of a lab that makes breakthroughs in the field of cancer research to help patients and this summer studentship is a great opportunity to start working in the field.



Name: Sarah McPhedran


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Julian Lum, University of Victoria/BC Cancer Deeley Research Centre


Project Title: Enabling the development of multiplex gene-editing for metabolic targets in CAR-T cells


Profile: I am a fourth-year biochemistry student at the University of Victoria and am completing my summer studentship at the BC Cancer Deeley Research Centre, under the supervision of Dr. Julian Lum. Outside of school, I enjoy spending time outdoors on beautiful Vancouver Island, reading books and spending time with my dog and cats.


The Lum Lab specializes in immunometabolism, specifically in investigating the metabolic environment of hard tumor cancers, such as ovarian and prostate cancers, to better design CAR-T cells. Researchers in the Lum Lab have found multiple gene targets that can be manipulated, using CRISPR-Cas9, to make more potent, selective CAR-T cells that are able to metabolically outcompete cancer cells. My summer studentship will be focusing on developing a strategy for multiplex editing using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, allowing for a more efficient gene editing strategy to manipulate CAR-T cells.


I plan to pursue a career in clinical research, with a focus on immunotherapy to treat cancer. I am transitioning into graduate studies at the University of Victoria in September 2021, where I will continue my research in the Lum Lab. Therefore, this summer will be the start of a very exciting journey on my path to becoming a research scientist.



Name: Shayla Verburg


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Samuel Workenhe, University of Guelph


Project Title: Rewiring cancer cell death to improve immunotherapy


Profile: I have just finished my third year of my undergraduate at the University of Guelph, where I am working towards a degree in Honours Biomedical Science. I am excited to be joining Dr. Workenhe’s laboratory in Guelph to conduct my project during the upcoming studentship. Outside of campus, I enjoy hiking and playing the piano. I also enjoy volunteering in the day surgery department at my local hospital.


Dr. Workenhe’s research focuses on the study of programmed cell death and immunity in mice and humans. My project’s goal is to determine what type of cell death modality activates anti-cancer immunity. This will be accomplished by generating lentiviruses expressing cell death executioner proteins, then inducing different forms of cell death. This will allow me to quantify the danger molecules secreted post-cell death through immunoblotting assays as well as specific assays measuring extracellular ATP and HMGB1.


I have always had a strong interest in cancer research and immunology. This summer studentship will provide me with a foundation of valuable technical skills and experiences that will benefit my undergraduate and graduate studies, hopefully leading me to a career in medicine along with clinical research.



Name: Shayna Earle


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. David Latulippe & Karina Kawka, McMaster University


Project Title: Determining the most cost-efficient option for therapeutic virus manufacturing via process economic simulations


Profile: My name is Shayna Earle and I have just completed my third year of McMaster’s new integrated biomedical engineering and health sciences program (iBioMed) with a focus on Chemical Engineering. This unique program includes both the chemical engineering requirements as well as project-based courses focused on solving health-related problems. Along with my studies, I am Co-President of the McMaster Women in Engineering society and a competitive synchronized swimmer.


This summer I will be working in the Latulippe Lab group (McMaster Chemical Engineering) focusing on improving the economics of virus manufacturing. By implementing BioSolve Process software from Biopharm, the cost analysis can be done based on multiple viruses and other variables to determine the most cost-efficient option. The ability to cost-effectively manufacture therapeutic viruses at large scales is essential for novel therapeutics to reach the most patients.


I have a passion for both engineering and healthcare that perfectly intersect in the area of Biomanufacturing. Biomanufacturing is a key element in the successful large-scale implementation of therapeutics. Through the Latulippe Lab group, I will have the opportunity to contribute to this growing and exciting field which will provide experience to drive my interest in a future career in the industry.



Name: Sydney Vallati


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. John Bell, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Construction of an Inducible T cell Engager in an Oncolytic Vaccinia Virus Backbone


Profile: I am entering my last year of Health Sciences with a concentration in Disability and Chronic Illness at Carleton University. I am passionate about the environment and love spending time in the outdoors. I enjoy hiking, camping, and climbing. In the summer, you can find me exploring the city by foot, on my bike, or paddling on the water.


The Bell lab has created two inducible promoter systems that can be used in an oncolytic virus backbone. The specific oncolytic virus backbone of interest is the vaccinia virus. This summer, I will clone a T cell engager into this inducible promoter system, which is predicted to augment therapeutic activity. The T cell engager will recognize the surface antigen carbonic anhydrase 2 (CA2), which is found on cells in hypoxic areas, and is constitutively expressed on many tumour cells and cancer associated fibroblasts.


This opportunity will allow me to explore the world of cancer research, further cementing my desire to pursue a career in this field. The experiences gained through the internship will lead to valuable learning of technical, analytical, and critical-thinking skills that I will be able to apply in my continuing education and eventually my career in research.



Name: Victoria Taylor


Supervisor(s)/Institution: Dr. Carolina Ilkow, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute


Project Title: Understanding the role of adipose tissue and fat cells in cancer virotherapy resistance


Profile: I have recently finished my fourth year at Queen’s University with a specialization in Biochemistry and next year will be starting a M.Sc. in Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. This summer I will be conducting my research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute under supervision of Dr. Carolina Ilkow. Outside of the lab I enjoy dancing and playing soccer.


The Ilkow lab is interested in a new class of anti-cancer therapeutics called oncolytic viruses (OVs) which specifically kill cancer cells and boost patient antitumour immune response. However, they previously found that breast and ovarian tumours homing to fat-rich tissues accumulate adipocyte-secreted bioactive molecules that induce OV resistance. My project aims to understand how signals emanating from adipocytes cause OV resistance by culturing cancer cells in adipocyte-conditioned media, and the role of fatty acid transport proteins (FATPs) in lipid uptake by creating FATP-depleted cancer cells with CRISPR/Cas9 technology.


OVs have shown promising benefits in early clinical trials and I am passionate about improving this therapy based on unique tumour microenvironments. I am excited for this opportunity to further my skills and knowledge in virus-based cancer therapies as it will prepare me for a career in academic research and medicine.