Networked cancer centres and image-guided therapy latest winners in SIF competition

Debbie Lawes
June 11, 2019

The federal government is investing $98 million in two pan-Canadian networks that will leverage the country’s strengths in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to significantly improve how diseases are diagnosed and treated, while also reducing wait times and healthcare costs.

The May 21 announcement by Innovation, Science and Economic Development minister Navdeep Bains represents a significant investment in national digital health and data platforms that will finally enable researchers and clinicians from across Canada to share patient data. The two winners—the Digital Health and Discovery Platform (DHDP) and the Industry Consortium for Image-Guided Therapy (IGIGT)—will each receive up to $49 million over five years.

The DHDP and IGIGT were chosen from a short list of nine (the two DHDP leads had initially applied separately before submitting a merged application), culled from an original slate of 40 applications submitted to the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Stream 4 competition: National Scale Initiatives at the Intersection of Data and Digital Capabilities in the Health and Biosciences.

Led by the Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) in Vancouver and Montreal AI startup Imagia, the DHDP will connect nearly 100 partners from across Canada, including health care institutions, small to large companies, universities and research foundations, as well as the country’s four major AI research labs. With more than $100 million in additional funding from partners, the new network will have the capacity to analyze enormous amounts of genomic and clinical data to find new and better ways to treat cancer patients no matter where they live in Canada

“Though Canada is a leader in AI, and pivotal work in AI was funded by Canadian grants, we are lagging the world in national initiatives to apply it to precision and personalized medicine,” TFRI states in its SIF application. “Canada’s publicly funded universal healthcare system generates a lot of valuable data to better understand cancer and other diseases, but the system’s ability to innovate to meet future challenges is lagging. Canadian patient data is especially fragmented and siloed, due to jurisdictional, cultural, and geographic barriers.”

The DHDP is designed to overcome these barriers. The platform provides the AI infrastructure that will drive collaboration among the new Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network. TFRI received $150 million in the recent federal budget to partner with existing cancer agencies to create a pan-Canadian network focused on generating precision medicine data that are definable, shareable, reliable and reproducible. Each time a cancer is treated anywhere in the system, clinicians will have access to that data and how the cancer responded to a specific drug or therapy.

Fueling the DHDP will be Imagia’s Evidens, a collaborative AI platform led by clinicians to pool anonymized patient data from multiple hospitals, including clinical trials, to accelerate the discovery of new biomarkers that track the outbreak and progression of a disease. Imagia will work closely with the Mila Quebec AI institute.

“A lot of this raw data sits in the laptop computers of scientists and clinicians who are doing research and clinical trials,” says Dr. Victor Ling, TFRI's president and scientific director. “We realized that we needed to get the cancer centres together so they can be the responsible people for curating all of this information that’s collecting.”

The network is also expected to become a magnet for clinical trials from big pharma companies attracted by the network’s high quality data and Canada’s diverse population. Over the next five years, Ling says companies will have access to a “gold standard” clinical cohort of 15,000 patients, increasing to 100,000 over 10 years.

“You can do a clinical trial in China, but how are you going to market that drug in Europe and the U.S. and other places? You don’t have that diversity of the population,” says Ling. “If this works, we will be the leader. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Ling says their institute was a natural to lead this initiative: it has a strong focus on translational research, and a trusted brand.

“The Terry Fox Research Institute was created in 2007 to do the kind of research that will make an impact at a transitional level … to figure out a way we could work together to take some of this great university research and do clinical studies,” says Ling. He adds that the DHDP will later be extended to include other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and could become a blueprint for other industrial sectors.

Image-guided therapy network

AI and machine learning also underpin the $126-million ICIGT led by the Sunnybrook Research Institute, in collaboration with about 80 partners, including 57 industry partners and 19 research institutions from across Canada.

By developing more accurate image-guided therapies such as MRIs, CT scans and ultrasounds, the consortium aims to deliver better health outcomes, faster diagnoses and personalized treatments that minimize side effects and the length of hospital stays. The initial focus will be on brain disease, oncology, musculoskeletal disorders and diabetes.

Companies will take advantage of the infrastructure and expertise at Sunnybrook and other research and academic institutions to accelerate commercialization of products that make imaging faster, more accurate and less expensive. ICIGT predicts imaging times could be reduced from an hour to as little as five minutes, while costs for a single MRI could drop from about $1500 to $200 or less.

“It is much cheaper for a company to develop a new product in Sunnybrook, for example, where we have all this infrastructure, than to build the infrastructure in-house and try to hire all the people who are experts in different fields. This publicly-funded infrastructure needs to be more effectively used,” says Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, the ICIGT’s project lead, and director of Physical Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto.

Canada is considered a leader in image-guided therapy, says Hynynen, but the main players are small-to-medium sized companies. “We don’t have large companies yet but we hope that these mid-sized companies will grow into large ones.”

Participating companies will be able to test their devices clinically, from early-stage trials through to large trials needed to get products into global markets. “That’s why we’re working with so many hospitals and healthcare providers,” says Hynynen.

For example, later this summer Sunnybrook is conducting a 40-person trial of a new MIR-guided ultrasound system. The Harmonic Medical Symphony can destroy fibroids in one hour during an outpatient procedure—a non-invasive alternative to surgery and radiation. The technology was pioneered by Hynynen and has led to a new spinoff, Harmonic Medical Inc.

By the end of its five-year funding, ICIGT expects to develop 45 new technologies, launch 10-20 startups, create more than 300 new jobs, raise $80 million in partner company investment, and generate $200 million in sales for image-guided companies. It also expects to become financially self-sufficient.

The Digital Health and Discovery Platform has over 100 partners, including:

  • University Health Network/Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
  • Amplitude Ventures Capital Management
  • MILA
  • BC Cancer
  • McGill university hospitals
  • Prompt Quebec
  • Montreal Neuro Institute
  • Saint John Regional Hospital
  • Genome Quebec
  • Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal
  • Caprion
  • Ontario Institute for Cancer Research
  • Mitacs
  • Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute
  • Dalhousie University IWK Health Centre
  • Vector Institute

The Industry Consortium for Image Guided Therapy has about 80 partners, including:

  • Calavera Surgical Design
  • Clarius Mobile Health
  • Conavi Medical
  • Dalhousie University
  • Flosonics Medical
  • Harmonic Medical Inc.
  • Hotchkiss Brain Institute
  • Rogue Research
  • Synaptive Medical
  • Vector Institute/University of Waterloo


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