S04 E06

Cancer Research and the Impact on Patient Care


Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson
Acting CEO
Atlantic Cancer Research Institute

In the sixth episode of our fourth season, our host Peter Brenders talks with Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson, Acting CEO of the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, about industry and academic partnerships, sharing expertise to help develop diagnostics in health care systems, and the impact of research on clinical care.



From the National Pharmaceutical Congress, this is the NPC Podcast for June 2 2021. The NPC Podcast was created to discuss and consider the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the year of Covid. And today, we're continuing the healthcare conversation by answering questions from listeners, just like you. 


This program is presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. The industry is rapidly evolving and Impres is designed to help you evolve with it. Learn more about Impres tailored best in class solutions at www.impres.com


On today's podcast, our guest is Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson. She is acting CEO at the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton, New Brunswick. She'll be chatting with our host, Peter Brenders, but first here's Mitch Shannon, CEO of Chronicle companies. Mitch, are you ready for research?




Liona, I was born ready for research. And one of the coolest things about research is that its pursuit takes place not only in the big population centers or named brand universities, there are some impressive efforts being made off the beaten track. One example is the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute or ACRI, a private nonprofit out of Moncton. Here's Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson, who runs the place, in conversation with Peter.




Welcome to the NPC Podcast. I'm Peter Brenders your host. 


In our continuing to look at the purpose, process and people in pharma in Canada. This episode takes a look into the research world for pharmaceuticals and opportunities in Canada. Joining us today from the east coast is Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson, VP University Admission for Vitalite Health Network, and now the acting CEO of ACRI, the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute. Welcome to the NPC Podcast, Brigitte.




Thank you, Peter. It's my pleasure to be here with you today.




Let's start with a little context for our listeners that may not know about the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute. So help us understand what is ACRI.




Well ACRI was really born out of the vision of one man which was Dr. Rodney Ouellette who founded ACRI, which is the acronym that I'll be using probably a lot during this podcast, who founded ACRI in 1998, actually within the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont Hospital in Moncton. 


We have to understand at this point that, you know, health research was basically non-existent, or very much of it was happening in the province, especially in the health system. So to be able to build such a Research Institute was really out of his sheer passion for research cancer research in particular, but also his passion and willingness to develop research capacity in his native province, which was New Brunswick.




Okay, so ACRI started as a vision to make research real for New Brunswick, and then it turned into something more. So how important is this research center for the province or even for healthcare locally?




Well, it really did start out as a vision, and it became bigger and bigger throughout the past 20 years. I mean, it started with three people. And now we have over 60 employees that are comprised of researchers, platform managers, research assistants, students from undergrad to post grad. So you can really see that it's been a quite an economic driver. And then also a knowledge creation and a generator of highly qualified research personnel, I guess, for our province. 


So again, I think it's just considering the ecosystem in which it came about like to be able to grow that much and to build something out of nothing, and to really, for the province, allowing us to get on the map for research for health research. 


On the healthcare side, just the fact of having such an infrastructure being built in growing in proximity to our hospital, it really helped the health system develop its capacity for diagnostic purposes, by sharing platforms, sharing equipment, sharing expertise. So it's really had a direct impact on patient care, actually, and on the access and quality of patient care that is available in our province.




Okay so, what I'm hearing is how research has become really integrated into the care system, I mean it's, you can't do one without the other almost but but then when I think about cancer, I mean, it's pretty broad. There's a lot of things about cancer. 


So is ACRI like just a big generalist, or has there been an area of expertise or an issue would say ACRI has developed?




I'd say ACRI's research has always sought out to gain a better understanding, I guess, of cancer biology, just in general. But it's very much been with a translational research approach, because I think the fact that it was so integrated in the health system, it really sought to develop research that would actually have an impact on clinical care either through early detection, better diagnostic and prognostic capabilities or improved treatments. 


So, research that started out being maybe more discovery based, became more translational, and then became even more evolved towards precision medicine. ACRI is actually making a specific and original contribution to the development of liquid biopsies. So that's, if you're going to think of a niche for accurately liquid biopsies would be it. 


So a lot of our researchers have been working on identifying biomarkers for cancer. And they're looking for them actually in bodily fluids. So blood, urine, saliva, other bodily fluids, and they're looking for little packages that are released by cancer cells that are called extracellular vesicles, which I'll call EVs, for short. And by detecting these EVs and blood and isolating them, with technology that was developed in house at ACRI, it's allowing us to use minimally invasive methods to try and identify the presence of cancer in a person, or even be able to monitor disease progression in people that are affected by cancer by looking at these markers that are circulating in the blood.




You're listening to Dr. Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson, CEO of ACRI. Okay, so I got I think I'm understanding the relevance of liquid biopsy sort of, to your point finding these EVs as diagnosis to help with cancer. But I've heard these done elsewhere to like can't this simply be done elsewhere? Like, why does the province need ACRI to do it?




Well, what's particular with ACRI is actually the technology to isolate these EVs. Absolutely, liquid biopsies research is happening elsewhere in the world, the US has invested huge amounts of money in this type of research. But it's been mostly focused around looking at circulating DNA. So specifically DNA. 


What EVs bring about is, like I said, They're little packages that circulate and are released by cells, cancer cells, or even normal healthy cells in your body. So it's like a means for cells to communicate between each other. One of my colleagues describes it as you can think of your circulatory system as the ocean cells, islands, well, the EVs are actually little messages in bottles that go from one island to another. And that information can help, you know, cells communicate and tell each other to grow or not grow. 


And so you can imagine the implications for diseases like cancer and other types of diseases. And these packages don't only have DNA, they have proteins, they have other metabolites, they have RNA. And that's the advantage that ACRI brings to this niche of research is that their technology, the technology we develop, actually here is allowing us to isolate the whole package, not just the the DNA.




So what I'm hearing, though, is what you're developing, this is not a New Brunswick thing. I mean, it's happening in New Brunswick. But this is a tool that has really a global implication that others can learn and use from this one. This is a New Brunswick invention, if you will.




It is, but it's already gaining a lot of interest, I guess, across the world, you can't develop without partnerships. So and especially when it comes to technology development, and bringing them closer to the patient, you really do need to have industry partners to try to push this along. And actually one of our very important partners has been Exosomics Siena, which is a part of a larger company, which is Lonza, an Italian company, actually, we've been partnered with them to develop and market EV isolation kits that can be used in a clinical context.




So I understand what I'm hearing here. I mean, this is just saying that the research is not just ACRI that's doing it, you're not doing it in isolation. You're you have partners that are that are working with you on this, is that correct?




Absolutely. So industry partners, but also academic partners. ACRI is very fortunate to be part of a pan-Canadian network that's led by the Canadian Network Center of Excellence in Personalized Medicine, which is Exactis Innovation. And we were actually included in this network because of our liquid biopsy and technology and our capabilities and biomarker identification. 


So you know, working with other partner research organizations across the country, I'd be remiss not to mention the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope Cancer Centers Network, which were also part of. So again, this is a collaborative effort. And we're just part of a broader cancer research ecosystem, I guess, in contributing through the technology that we're developing right here in New Brunswick.




Okay, so in an earlier episode, and in the season, we heard about translating research into companies. But what I'm hearing here is as much you might be working with companies, I'm hearing about translating research or you were saying sort of even bridging it directly into patient care. So how does this work? How does ACRI read bridge discovery and application?




Well, I think it's the goal of all health research right to try and bridge this gap, you know what researchers are working to make discoveries that are going to help people directly. The problem remains that with all the efforts and goodwill of researchers, it still takes an average of 17 years for discovery to actually make it to the patient's bedside. 


I mean, we all talk about evidence based medicine, research, informing practice. But I think if you really want to reduce the gap between discovery and application, we have to sort of shift this and think that practice, clinical practice must and needs to start to inform research. 


I think the Covid-19 pandemic showed us how important this is, in the most explicit way possible, because I mean, we had to rapidly evolve as a health system to new information, new knowledge that was generated, because we were doing real time research at the point of care of Covid patients. So we had to adapt and uptake, this knowledge to adjust the care that we were giving to our patients. 


ACRI at  its core is very much discovery based. But from the beginning, its research has always been clinically informed. And it had to do that because it needed to collaborate with the clinicians that were in place to help develop a research program that was relevant to the clinicians they were working with. So ACRI sort of set the foundation, I guess, or laid out an approach by which we can build upon to bring research even more integrated into the clinical setting and into the health system.




So that sounds like you're talking about research, changing the health system, fundamentally, really, I mean, in my 30 years in health care, though, I've heard plenty about how the health system needs change. 


So what's different now do you think and why is ACRI's approach going to be the way you at least for New Brunswick in terms of helping to make that change?




I think, again, ACRI when it came about was very much a lonely child, I guess, in the health research ecosystem of our province. But fortunately, partner organizations like Vitalite Health Network for which I'm also VP of University Mission. I mean, the partner organizations have also grown. A catalyst for this has definitely been the arrival of a local medical training program, which is a delocalized program from Sherbrooke. So just having create that momentum of having medical students in hospitals sort of forced our health system here in New Brunswick to become more academic. 


I would also say that our close academic partners in the region, University of Moncton, which is our major partner, has also made health research one of its priorities. And I think it's just that the system or the ecosystem here has come to a point where it's mature. And there's been a change of leadership throughout these three organizations that are making it easier to maybe align and identify common objectives and goals with regards to health research, with the idea of the end goal always of being to improve the health of our population, and also allow our health system to solve its problems. So using research to innovate and transform within the health system.




You're listening to the NPC Podcast, I'm Peter Brenders, your host. 


It certainly makes a great story. I think in terms of, you know, the practical realities for those that always wondered, like, what do I get for research at the end? I think you're telling the story in terms of it is fundamental in terms of evolving the system and helping it to change, as I think about sort of that future. The question is a lot of our listeners well, we're from pharma. And so what do you think is the role of pharma industry in this future?




First and foremost, can I say New Brunswick is open for business? I think everyone in New Brunswick wants to say this, but especially in the health research forefront, and especially in the scenario precision medicine. We have a phenomenon here that we call within our small circles here  in Moncton, the Merck effect. So I mentioned that the Exactis Innovation Network that actually came about from many, many meetings that went on between 2014 and 2016. And these meetings were held at Bio, actually, which is this big international biotech meeting, biopharmaceutical trade show in North America like the biggest one. And this led these discussions with Merck, especially led to Merck investing $2 million in the Exactis Innovation Initiative for which ACRI was a part of. 


This 2 million was actually then leveraged for other government funding. And all of this funding brought it about to 6 to 7 million dollars, where then we could pull this and leverage it again, to build our new center for precision medicine for which we got CFI funding, which is a 22 million infrastructure project. All this to say that a small investment from pharma in Atlantic Canada goes a long way. And I think we're small which makes us nimble, we are also very well connected, and we can work together fairly easily to make big changes and, you know, dream big and have big projects come about with small initial investments.




What a great example, what a great story, that when a place is open for business, as you say, it just takes a small investment to really help change and improve the health system overall, you think about sort of the downstream effect, and in Canada, and we've heard from a number of other guests that we've had on the podcast series, it is that opportunity for us to to grow.


Any last words that you'd like to put out to the community?




I just think that, you know, we're really on the cusp of something amazing here in our province, I really think that the pandemic has put the importance of research being at the forefront in the health system, it can't be viewed as a separate culture anymore. I think ACRI's story, and from its beginnings, is an example of what is possible when research is done in a very much clinical setting and really integrated with the clinical setting and where the clinical practice informs research questions. 


You know, there's a paradigm shift in health research. You know, learning health systems is a big buzzword, patient oriented research. I think it's just great that we're finally going to see that you know, we all talk about evidence based care quality care, it can only be achieved if we implement best practices that are evidence based and that come from clinical research. And that research needs to be informed by the users of the system and the workers of the system of the health system.




We have been speaking with Brigitte Sonier-Ferguson, CEO of ACRI on the NPC Podcast. Thank you for listening.




Thanks to Brigitte and Peter. ACRI's website is www.atlanticcancer.ca. If you have comments or questions about today's conversation, tweet us @2021NPC or send an email to health@chronicle.org. Our comment line is always open at 647-873-6995. 


We have a guest in the studio. Happy to welcome an old friend of the program: Mike Cloutier. Mike, I understand you're getting your own podcast.




That's correct. Yes, Mitch. I'm excited about the new podcast called Next in Pharma. I got a chance to speak to three digital savvy leaders that come from three large pharmaceutical companies: AstraZeneca, Biogen and Novo Nordisk. They collectively enlightened me on the power of AI and predictive analytics in the world of omni-channel marketing and sales. There's no shortage of attention to and energy towards the advanced use of AI and pharma. It truly is a brave new digital world out there




That it is. When is your new podcast coming out? 




It's coming out on June 9, Mitch. 




Well look forward to that. I think AI is certainly one of those areas where we could all stand to learn as much as we can in a hurry. So thanks. Thanks for coming in. 




It's my great pleasure. Thank you for your support. 




If you like today's podcast, please share it with your colleagues. Find it at Apple iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, anywhere you look for your podcasts. The NPC Podcast is presented in co-operation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner, visit them at www.impres.com


This is Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies. Your Podcast Producer is Jeremy Visser. Jeremy is assisted today by Arija Empakeris. The announcer was Liona Von Research. The musical theme is performed with gusto by the NPC Podcast Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jean-Claude Millbrook.


Stay safe, and we'll talk to you again next week.