Dr. Rebecca Auer is a surgical oncologist and researcher who specializes in patients diagnosed with abdominal cancer, like ovarian, colon, stomach and pancreas.
Dr. Rebecca Auer is studying the impact of surgery on the immune system and subsequent cancer recurrence. Her research is among the first to explore the mechanisms responsible for the promotion of cancer growth and metastases that occurs after surgery. Her lab work focuses on developing innovative cancer therapeutics that can be administered during the perioperative period (before, during, and after surgery), with the intention of bringing these therapies to the clinic. Dr. Auer is running three active clinical studies of perioperative cancer therapies, which aim to improve cancer outcomes for all patients who undergo invasive cancer surgeries.
Peritoneal carcinomatosis (spread of cancer throughout the abdomen) is the leading cause of death for patients with abdominal cancers, such as ovarian, colon, stomach and pancreas. Many patients die with massive abdominal distention, unable to eat or breathe comfortably.
In collaboration with John Bell and Jean-Simon Diallo, she has developed a novel type of vaccination for peritoneal carcinomatosis. The vaccine is based on the oncolytic or cancer killing virus that Dr. Bell has already advanced to clinical trials. The virus is very effective at infecting and killing tumour cells but leaves most normal tissue alone. Her team engineered this virus to express a molecule that stimulates the immune system. It then takes cancer cells from the patient’s own ascites and infects them with this virus before radiating them (to kill them) and injecting them back into the abdominal cavity. The virus infects the isolated tumour cells that become factories of virus production, which go on to infect other cancer cells in the abdomen. The virus also produces an immune stimulating molecule which calls in the cells of the immune system and directs them to kill the cancer.
This vaccine has not been used in cancer patients yet. But in the lab, Dr. Auer and her team have cured mice with peritoneal carcinomatosis who would otherwise die within two to three days. They have seen tumours larger than the adjacent kidney completely shrink away after several doses of the vaccine. Moreover, cured mice develop an immunity to that tumour, much like a vaccine against a virus or bacteria. While they still have a way to go before confirming that the vaccine works in humans, these results are extremely promising.