A collage of the winners' headshots

Dr. Aaron Gazendam works long hours at Sinai Health’s sarcoma clinic. But once a month, you’ll find him in London, Ont., caring for patients who live in the region. The orthopedic oncology fellow is also conducting research to find out how this model of local care delivery is impacting patients. Dr. Gazendam has now been recognized for his efforts with the Drucker-Reitman Families Innovation Award in Clinical Research for 2024.

Dr. Khalid Al-Zahrani, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI), part of Sinai Health, is this year’s recipient of the Drucker-Reitman Award in Discovery Research. He is being recognized for developing a powerful genome editing tool to hunt for cancer-driving genes in tumours.

Established by a generous donation from the Drucker and Reitman families following Dr. Daniel Drucker’s receipt of the 2021 Gairdner International Award, the awards recognize outstanding trainees conducting clinical and discovery research at Sinai Health.

Dr. Drucker, a Senior Clinician Scientist at the LTRI, is globally renowned for his pioneering discovery and clinical research, which have led to groundbreaking medications for diabetes and obesity, improving millions of lives worldwide.

Receiving care closer to home

It is well established that sarcoma patients have better outcomes with centralized care delivered by highly specialized teams. In Ontario, patients with this form of rare cancer that affects bone and connective tissue receive care at the world-leading and Canada’s largest Sarcoma Program at Mount Sinai Hospital. However, patients who need to travel long distances to receive centralized care experience additional financial burdens and potentially worse outcomes, said Dr. Gazendam.

To alleviate travel burden for patients, Sinai Health, in partnership with the London Health Sciences Centre, established a satellite clinic in London 35 years ago. Led by Dr. Peter Ferguson, Chief of Orthopaedics at Sinai Health and mentor to Dr. Gazendam, the clinic is staffed by sarcoma experts from Toronto who visit monthly to see patients living in the region. While surgeries and consultations with the multidisciplinary tumor board still require travel to Toronto, therapy and follow-up appointments are conducted in London. But whether local care brings benefits without compromising health outcomes remained an open question. This is what Dr. Gazendam set to find out.

By comparing 175 patients treated at the satellite clinic with 1085 patients treated at, and living close to, Mount Sinai Hospital between 2010 and 2021, Dr. Gazendam found no differences in the time it took to receive treatment. Critically, there was no difference in overall survival between the two groups. Meanwhile, the patients in the satellite clinic saved on average 300km of travel per visit during treatment and follow-up, indicating significant financial savings. In follow up research, Dr. Gazendam is conducting patient surveys to find out if travel savings did indeed translate to benefits, and how this may have impacted their overall quality of life.

Dr. Gazendam hopes that this research will shine new light on the work that the Sarcoma Team has been doing for more than three decades. He added, “Driving to London once a month is a significant time commitment for everyone on the team and it is gratifying to know that this helps patients by saving them time and money without taking away from world class care.”

New tools to identify cancer vulnerabilities

Dr. Al-Zahrani is dedicated to researching cancers that lack effective treatments. As a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratories of Drs. Daniel Schramek and Jeff Wrana, both Senior Investigators at LTRI, he has focused on basal-like breast cancer, an aggressive type that predominantly affects younger women. These patients often have tumours with numerous mutations that activate certain cancer-promoting genes, called oncogenes, while deactivating genes known as tumour suppressor genes. Dr. Al-Zahrani’s goal has been to identify which of these genes and mutations are pivotal for the disease’s onset and progression.

He employed the genome editing CRISPR technology to develop a novel tool called CRISPR-iKOALA, which stands for CRISPR-Knock-Out, Inhibition, and Activation Linked Assay. This innovation not only allows for the deactivation of selected genes, a process previously achieved in the lab, but also enables the activation of specific oncogenes. By turning off tumor suppressor genes and activating oncogenes, Dr. Al-Zahrani has been able to mimic the molecular events that lead to tumor formation in mice, helping to identify critical genes that were previously overlooked due to limitations of cell culture studies. Unlike cell cultures, his method includes the interaction between cancer cells and their environment, which is crucial for understanding disease progression.

Dr. Al-Zahrani’s work has highlighted a particular oncogene that appears critical not only for basal-like breast cancer but also for lung and head and neck cancers. Fueled by his accolades, he remains focused on unlocking further insights into this oncogene’s role in cancer development and continuing to develop technologies to identify new cancer driver genes.

Winning the Drucker-Reitman Award is a big boost for Dr. Al-Zahrani, he said. “Even being mentioned alongside Dr. Drucker’s name gives me goosebumps. Receiving this award is truly inspiring and I hope our methodology helps others reveal new biology and identify new therapeutic targets for other cancers.”

Dr. Sabine Cordes, Senior Investigator at LTRI and Chair of the Drucker-Reitman Award selection committee, said, “We thank the Drucker and Reitman families for establishing these awards to celebrate our exceptional trainees who are conducting clinical and discovery research. Dr. Gazendam and Dr. Al-Zahrani have not only advanced our understanding of cancer care and cancer mechanisms, but their research also brings new hope to patients battling this formidable disease. These awards reflect our vision at Sinai Health of fostering an environment where young researchers can thrive and make significant contributions to medical science.”