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Award-Winning Research Team Develops Innovative Technique To Tackle Tumours

Atlantic Veterinary College team members: Dr. Jonathan Spears, Biomedical Sciences; Dr. Chelsea Martin, Pathology and Microbiology; Dr. Stephanie Hamilton, Companion Animals; Dr. Dan Hurnik, Health Management. Image: submitted.

MONCTON – How is this for a “retirement” project: an innovative research initiative into more effective treatment of tumours with minimally-invasive surgical techniques that involves more than 20 medical professionals and researchers from the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton, the Université de Moncton, le Réseau de santé Vitalité, McGill University in Montreal, the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, and industry support abroad.

That’s what Dr. Jocelyn Paré signed up after he finished up work as a research scientist with Environment Canada.

“In 2010, just as I was about to retire, I was asked to look at the state of the art of the medical applications of microwave technology…when I did the review I was amazed to see how many gaps there were in terms of novelty and innovation in terms of having better tools [for treatment],” said Dr. Paré, who leads the group that was named Research Team of the Month for March by the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF).

“I went on to develop a novel approach to microwave ablation and presented it to the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute I 2014. They were interested but wanted me to come back to work. I hesitated but agreed to do so if we were successful at securing new funding. The New Brunswick Innovation Foundation bestowed on me an Innovation Research Chair in 2015 and on we went!”

Dr. Paré’s area of research expertise had centred around what’s called “microwave ablation” technology. This is a minimally-invasive technique where doctors insert a needle in the area where a cancerous tumour resides and “use microwaves as a source of heat to burn the diseased tissues,” says Dr. Paré.

“The idea is to reach the tumour without having to perform a resection on the patients and do surgery,” he said. “As the tumour heats … it dies. [You] target diseased tissues and try to have a limited impact on surrounding healthy tissue.”

There is also another kind of treatment, says Dr. Paré, called “chemical ablation,” where doctors inject a chemical, most commonly ethanol, into the diseased tissue. It is toxic and it burns the tumour, killing it in much the same way as the microwave technology.

Dr. Paré’s innovative idea, which has become the basis of the current research project, is to combine the techniques that produce a better outcome for patients.

The ethanol can penetrate more deeply than microwaves into the diseased tissue – up to 4-8 times deeper, says Dr. Paré, and when used together they’re able to tackle larger tumours with more precision.

“We’re adding a little bit of ethanol to allow the microwave to travel further into the tissue and therefore we’re targeting larger tumours than what could be done with microwave alone,” he says.

Dr. Paré says the new technique, which they’re calling “microwave-assisted chemical ablation technology,” would also limit “collateral damage” to healthy tissue around the tumour.

“We can be more precise and more efficient,” he says.

Dr. Paré’s team is now onto the next phase of the project now that it has completed testing the new technique in the lab in Moncton. His research partners at the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island have now begun the testing on pigs.

The team is working with pigs because they’re similar in physiology and anatomy to humans, says Dr. Daniel Hurnik, a veterinarian and Professor at the college.

Dr. Hurnik welcomes the opportunity to help improve health treatments for people using the skills and resources of the Atlantic Veterinary College.

“With our knowledge and ability to work with animals, we’re also helping human health directly,” he says. “This is an exciting collaboration [to improve] human health technologies. The veterinary profession can help coming up with new treatments for people that are easier and more effective.”

He also says the technology could eventually be used to treat animals as well.

It’s a win-win for us,” says Dr. Hurnik. “We get to discuss the concerns of human practitioners and we have, in turn, generated interest from veterinary surgeons wondering whether this technology can be used to treat animals.”

When the animal trials have been completed a team at McGill will begin human trials to “prove it will work in people,” says Dr. Louis-Martin Boucher, an Interventional radiologist and Assistant Professor at the McGill University Health Center.

The original plan was to engage the McGill team when they were ready to begin testing with people, but Dr. Boucher made the trip to P.E.I. to help with the animal testing process.

“I was involved in the tests that they’ve done in animals, and ended up helping them in guiding the needle placements by ultrasound inside different portions of the liver or the kidney,” said Dr. Boucher.

He says his team will begin tests with people once the animal testing process is complete.

“The needle design is pretty much there. Now it’s just a matter of proving its efficacy. Once the animal part is done, if we demonstrate that it’s safe and it works well, then we’ll try it in some human patients that are interested in this kind of technology.”

Dr. Boucher believes it will be a huge step forward if does work.

“[Dr. Paré’s] theory is that by using alcohol we could really uniform the size of the burn, make sure it’s exactly the size we want and at the same time make sure the edges are very clean,” says Dr Boucher.

“This needle also has the potential of injecting not only alcohol but maybe medication, or something like this, inside the tumour. For me that’s probably one of the most exciting parts of this project – eventually injecting some kind of drug once the burn is done to stimulate the immune system to attack that tumour or kill off any tumour that could be left behind the burn.”

He values this kind of collaboration between what he calls the “bench” (the researchers) and the medical teams in the clinics.

Dr. Hurnik is similarly impressed with both the innovative idea and the assembly of such a diverse, yet cohesive team of researchers.

“This is a really good example of how an innovative idea can arise in the Maritimes and we can use the existing schools and technologies to find a solution.”

It’s a great team that works well together, says Dr. Pare, and strong enough that perhaps he can actually retire – again – someday soon.

Here are members of the Microwave Assisted-Chemical Ablation (MA-CA) Team:

This story was sponsored by the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation.