At Ovarian Cancer Canada, we know that innovation is the key to advancing research into this disease — and that, in order to foster new ideas, it is vital to support researchers at the start of their careers.

For this reason, the Anita Unruh Prize was established in 2016 by Patrick McGrath in honour of his wife, a former Associate Dean and Professor, to reward excellence in trainee research and encourage trainees to establish careers focused on ovarian cancer.

The prize is awarded biennially, and we’re pleased to announce the 2022 winner: Qingchuan Zhao, a graduate student at the Université de Montréal’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC). Qingchuan’s research, published in an American Association for Cancer Research journal paper titled “Proteogenomics Uncovers a Vast Repertoire of Shared Tumour-Specific Antigens in Ovarian Cancer”, represents the first comprehensive analysis of ovarian tumour antigens — molecules on the surface of cancer cells that are not present in normal cells. Identifying these tumour-specific antigens (TSAs) is crucial for developing new therapeutic strategies, such as designing vaccines to stimulate the anti-cancer immune response.

Pictured: Tania Vrionis, CEO, Ovarian Cancer Canada; Patrick McGrath; Qingchuan Zhao; Erin Barrett, Chair of the Board, Ovarian Cancer Canada.

Pictured above (from left to right): Tania Vrionis, CEO, Ovarian Cancer Canada; Patrick McGrath; Qingchuan Zhao; Erin Barrett, Chair of the Board, Ovarian Cancer Canada.

Crucially, Qingchuan’s study expanded the scope of traditional TSA surveys, which tend to focus on mutations in DNA “coding regions,” which account for just 2% of the human genome. Instead, this study aimed to establish the global TSA landscape of ovarian cancer by taking all genomic regions into account. “We identified a vast repertoire of antigens, and the majority of them come from non-coding regions,” she says. “Most of these antigens were unmutated, meaning they could potentially be shared between different patients. That creates a lot of possibilities.”

These possibilities, in the long term, could potentially include vaccines and other innovations, Qingchuan reports, but there are other benefits to the discovery of ovarian cancer antigens that are shared between different patients.

“From what I know, we were the first ones to report these types of antigens in ovarian cancer,” she says. “That gives more candidates for therapeutic targets [to treat ovarian cancer].”

In honour of this impressive work, Qingchuan received the third Anita Unruh Prize: a $5,000 award, in addition to registration and travel for the 10th Canadian Conference on Ovarian Cancer Research in Ottawa — which, as Qingchuan points out, includes sessions dedicated to vaccines as well as immunology and the tumour microenvironment, which has long been her area of focus. The opportunity to attend the conference allows emerging researchers to engage deeply in the ever-growing ovarian cancer scientific community. The Anita Unruh Prize, in combination with Ovarian Cancer Canada’s multifaceted, bench-to-bedside approach to research, is growing this community exponentially, and advancing made-in-Canada innovations to improve outcomes and advance new research related to this disease.

Qingchuan is an inspiring addition to this research coalition. She came to Canada from China to pursue a Master’s at Concordia University, and then joined Dr. Claude Perreault’s immunobiology research laboratory at IRIC for her doctoral work. “I was really lucky to be recruited into Dr. Perreault’s lab,” Qingchuan says. “In this field there are really a lot of genius scientists, and I’m lucky to work with one of them.” It’s fortunate for the ovarian cancer community, as well; when she joined the lab, the team had just developed the new approach that formed the basis of this prize-winning research. “We were thinking we should apply [our findings] to really help patients, so we started to think about what disease we should choose first. We chose ovarian cancer and that’s how my project, my first paper, was generated.”

Our newest Anita Unruh Prize winner has great hope for the future of ovarian cancer research. “I hope my research is able to lead to new treatments,” she says. “We might suffer or have difficulties at this time, but we have the ability to change when we believe in ourselves and believe the future will be better.”

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