Best gift ever: a fully staffed lab-in-a-box

Mitacs-CanPRIME team works to find cures for cancer and develop vaccines

There are few words more painful to imagine than “your child has cancer.”

Overhearing these life-altering words prompted Mitacs research intern Taylor Jamieson-Datzkiw to pursue a career in pediatric oncology — that is, cancer treatments for children and young adults.

Jamieson-Datzkiw, an MD-PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa) and recently recognized with the 2020 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — Indigenous, works to create new cancer-killing viruses. An active role model and mentor to other Indigenous students and first-generation post-secondary students, she volunteers with her local Let’s Talk Science Aboriginal Mentorship Program in addition to studies and work.

“Essentially, I’m working to find a new option for those patients who’ve run out of options,” she says. “My goal is to create viruses that prevent drug resistance.”

Supervised by principal investigators Carolina Ilkow and John Bell in the UOttawa’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology and The Ottawa Hospital, Jamieson-Datzkiw‘s research targets mutated breast and ovarian cancer genes, which can cause aggressive tumours, impacting women and men at a young age.

“It’s a long process,” she says. “I’m laying the groundwork, but I’m optimistic my cancer-killing viruses will make it to clinical trials.”

Jamieson-Datzkiw’s internship is one of 166 work-integrated learning opportunities created by the Canadian Partnership for Research in Immunotherapy Manufacturing Excellence (CanPRIME), a collaboration between The Ottawa Hospital, Algonquin College, UOttawa, Mitacs, and industry partners.

The researchers vary in their level of experience, ranging from college students learning fundamental skills such as pipetting to postdoctoral fellows overseeing various aspects of the program and providing supervision, mentorship, and skills development for junior researchers. Jamieson-Datzkiw is one of the graduate students investigating new options.

Unique hands-on training boosts production of biotherapeutics

As cancer remains one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, CanPRIME may prove to be a gift to many. The program offers specialized training on developing, testing, and manufacturing novel biotherapeutics that incorporate viruses, cells, and genes. It is the only program in Canada that provides hands-on training to develop these skills in a good manufacturing practice facility.

CanPRIME takes place primarily at The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC), which has been successfully producing biotherapeutics for clinical trials in Canada and abroad for more than 10 years. The centre has played a crucial role in launching over 15 world-first clinical trials involving cancer-fighting viruses, stem cell therapy, CAR-T therapy and more. In recent months, it has been preparing to support possible COVID-19 vaccines.

The goal is to train nearly 50 college and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows in its first five years.

“I have been working at BMC since January and it has been fantastic, unforgettable so far,” says Mitacs intern Britany Donis, who’s pursuing an Advanced Diploma in Biotechnology at Algonquin College. “With the background I have from Algonquin College and the Biotechnology program, everything comes together, and they give you every opportunity to learn through CanPRIME. It’s sort of a surreal job, because we are contributing; we are part of the team as students.”

Algonquin administration confirms the value.

“Our partnership with CanPRIME has been highly rewarding for everyone as many of our co-op students find full-time employment in the field following their work terms. Students choose Algonquin College for our strong track record of helping our graduates launch their careers and this partnership is a great example of how the college works closely with industry to help students realize this dream,” says David Hall, Manager of the Algonquin College Cooperative Education Department.

For graduates, the partnership leads to positive employment prospects as it gives them the opportunity to develop unique and in-demand skills. All the five individuals who have completed the program since it started in 2019 are now employed in biotherapeutics manufacturing.

“It feels pretty special to come to work and know that I’m contributing to making potentially life-saving therapies,” says Algonquin graduate and former Mitacs intern Leon Barbeau, now employed at BMC.

Beyond individual training and employment opportunities, CanPRIME contributes to much greater national and global outcomes.

“Canadian researchers are leading the way in developing innovative biotherapeutics that could revolutionize the treatment and prevention of human disease,” says Dr. Carolina Ilkow, Associate Scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, Assistant Professor at UOttawa, and the lead scientist behind the program. “CanPRIME provides crucial training so we can also lead the way in manufacturing these therapies in Canada.”

The CanPRIME partnership is truly a gift — a lab-in-box.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

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Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.