Kathy Han
Dr. Kathy Han and her team are the winners of this year’s Agnico Eagle Grand Challenge in Cancer Interception. (Photo: UHN)

This year's Agnico Eagle Grand Challenge in Cancer Interception has been awarded to Dr. Kathy Han and a team of scientists and clinicians who seek to advance detection of human papilloma virus (HPV) in the bloodstream as a marker of tumor presence and cure more patients with virus-related head and neck, cervical and anal cancers.

Dr. Han's team includes Drs. Scott Bratman, John de Almeida, Ali Hosni, Anna Spreafico, John Kim, John Waldron, Stephanie Lheureux, Wei Xu and Sareh Kesharvarzi.

The goal of the competition is to detect cancers earlier and cure more patients by treating before cancers become too advanced. Dr. Han's work embraces these concepts.

The majority of cervical, anal and some head and neck cancers are caused by HPV and are treated with radiation and chemotherapy, but the cancer often comes back and cannot be detected until it is no longer curable.

Predicting which patients will experience a recurrence is a challenge and their treatment cannot be tailored.​

To address this, Dr. Han's project capitalizes on basic cancer biology and pairs it with new cutting-edge genetic technologies.​​

When the disease recurs, cancer cells grow and die quickly, releasing their DNA into the blood. The DNA from these cancer cells can now be detected in the bloodstream by hunting for HPV genetic material through sensitive laboratory techniques known as liquid biopsy.

Project 'shovel-ready' with patients recruited, samples to analyze

By using two types of this technology (digital polymerase chain reaction, and HPV genome sequencing), Dr. Han's team will be able to distinguish which patients are most at risk of having their cancer return and those who will remain disease free.

Cancer treatments can then be found earlier and treatment tailored with a simple and inexpensive blood test.

"Our team is really honoured to be awarded the Grand Challenge," Dr. Han says. "​​This award will enable us to validate the accuracy of circulating HPV DNA for detecting residual disease, and make early detection of cancer recurrence and interception a reality."

Their project is "​shovel-ready" and has already recruited patients and patient samples to analyze, says Dr. Raymond Kim, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Medical Director, Cancer Early Detection.​

"​​Dr. Han's team just published some of their initial work on a smaller set of patients, and her team is poised to take her studies to the next stage with the Agnico Eagle Intercept Cancer Grand Challenge," Dr. Kim says.

"​Their team is multi-disciplinary, and features the next generation of cancer researchers. They are focused on HPV cancers which affects a wide range of patients, particularly under-represented populations, and will make cancer early detection and interception a reality."

The Grand Challenges are a series of bold, innovative and high-impact projects at the Princess Margaret. They aim to advance cancer diagnoses and treatments to cure more patients and improve quality of life by moving beyond chemotherapy.

The series focuses on four key directives:

  • Detecting cancer early and intercepting it before symptoms, while still curable;
  • Thinking beyond chemotherapy towards more precise, customized therapies that effectively target cancer to each individual patient, without the harsh side effects of chemotherapy;
  • Reimagining and redesigning the cancer patient experience by maximizing digital intelligence and embracing augmented human intelligence;
  • Solidifying the human touch in cancer care by infusing comfort and joy into every interaction, with particular focus on equity and access, navigation, diversity, ambience of the centre, patient engagement, inclusivity and supportive communication.
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