Donation to renamed cancer research institute will be ‘transformational’

Dr. Jane Philpott and Dr. Patrick Deane unveiled the new name of the Cara and Murray Sinclair Cancer Research Institute at the Queen’s School of Medicine. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

The Queen’s Cancer Research Institute will be renamed the Cara and Murray Sinclair Cancer Research Institute in recognition of a donation the university calls “transformational.”

The new name was unveiled at the School of Medicine Atrium on Monday, Jun. 10, 2024, at a ceremony recognizing Cara and Murray Sinclair’s $25-million gift, which the university says will be invaluable in advancing cancer research at Queen’s. 

Cara Sinclair is a veteran volunteer who dedicated her life to improving the welfare of at-risk, often homeless, youth in Vancouver — for which she was awarded British Columbia’s Medal of Good Citizenship in 2021. Murray Sinclair (not to be confused with Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission), is a Queen’s Bachelor of Commerce graduate (1984).

The couple were introduced on this occasion by Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane, who said, “With Murray’s keen business sense and Cara’s experience founding a registered charity, they are indeed a formidable team. Together, they are philanthropists who want to make a difference. And with today’s announcement, they will make a transformational difference in cancer research in this country.”

The name change was announced by Dr. Jane Philpott, former Minister of Health and the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Director of the School of Medicine at Queen’s. Philpott said, “The Cara and Murray Sinclair Cancer Research Institute — also to be known as the Sinclair Cancer Research Institute — is the only research centre in Canada that brings together experts from three key cancer disciplines: cancer biology and genetics, clinical trials, and cancer care and epidemiology. From basic science research to testing new drivers to evaluating the impact of treatments, Sinclair Cancer Research Institute will take cancer research from bench to bedside and back.”

“It is very rare to have this breadth of research in one institution,” Philpott continued, “and we will now build on that unique foundation by enhancing research, improving training, and launching new programs that will position the Sinclair Cancer Research Institute to be a leader in cancer research on the world stage.”

The Sinclairs themselves said they were experiencing a mix of emotions prior to the ceremony.

Murray Sinclair said, “It is estimated that an average of 675 people in Canada will be diagnosed with cancer every day. I’ll say that again — every day. And the impact of this is devastating. We know because cancer has touched our lives, too.”

Cara and Murray Sinclair. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

He fought back tears as he explained that his brother had passed away only months ago at age 55, after a three-year battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“Sadly, our loss is not unique,” Cara Sinclair said, “because cancer affects all of us. We have a common goal. We all have a stake in it. We understand how critical it is to act. We are all touched by cancer, and because of that, we can find the collective strength and motivation to do something about it.”

“Queen’s takes a unique, collaborative approach to cancer research. It integrates multiple disciplines to solve problems in new ways, with a constant focus on better outcomes for patients,” the Sinclairs said. “Our family is proud to support the Institute, and we hope that this gift inspires even more support for cancer research at Queen’s.” 

Deane thanked the Sinclairs again, saying, “Their gift will enhance the Cara and Murray Sinclair Cancer Research Institute’s ability to discover new potential treatments, test new drugs, and evaluate the impact that these treatments have on patients. It will also help develop highly skilled trainees who will be the next leaders in cancer research.” 

As Philpott alluded, the Sinclair Cancer Research Institute is the only Canadian centre uniting experts from cancer biology and genetics, clinical trials, and cancer care and epidemiology to share knowledge, advance treatments, and evaluate patient impact. The centre’s clinical trials division is already an international leader in cancer research and drug development, and the institution is home to world-class researchers, including the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Immunophysiology and Immunotherapy, Dr. Paul Kubes, and several Canada Research Chairs. 

The impact of one family’s generosity

Philpott then led a discussion about how this generous donation will impact cancer research at the university.

Dr. Andrew Craig, Director of the Sinclair Cancer Research Institute, explained that the donation will “have a major impact by growing our capabilities for cancer research. We’re planning to build new facilities that will really be cutting edge to try to improve the way we can visualize [and] treat cancer. And we also plan to do this while encouraging more trainees to come through and build their resumes and build their experience, in a way that no other facilities can. So we’re looking to do a lot of things.”

One researcher who has already contributed to successful research and treatment of cancer is Dr. Annette Hay, who described her work and how this gift will include investments toward a biomanufacturing facility to develop new immunotherapies, a groundbreaking approach to cancer treatment.

Hay called the day “bittersweet,” saying, “This is a fantastic day of excitement and hope and promise.” But she also said the achievement was tied to the loss of many loved ones to the deadly disease, and  “that’s what what really drives us to keep moving… to try to do better.”

She gave a brief and fascinating look at immunotherapy: “It is a coherent way to treat cancer that is highly effective in some cancers for some people. And one of the really big reasons to smile is that there are people in this room who are here today because of that.”

Dr. Jane Philpott listens to Dr. Annette Hay describe the process of cell transfer in immunotherapy. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

There are various different types of immune therapies, many of which are being tested in Canada right now, Hay noted. “But they don’t work for everybody, and they don’t work all at the time. We have a lot of research to do to understand how to develop new therapies that may work better for more people.”

Earlier in the day, she described cell therapy, a specific type of immunotherapy that she said sounds like science fiction but is actually science fact. “It is where we take a small number of cells from a patient with cancer, and they are flown to a manufacturing facility where they are engineered to recognize that person’s specific cancer.”

Once the cells have been engineered, they are infused back into the person’s body, where they attack the cancer — an approach which Hay said is “resulting in apparent cures for some people with certain types of leukemia and lymphoma.”

“That’s the type of research that this gift is going to enable us to move forward in advance more quickly,” she said, explaining that currently all of this involves a lot of travel for the cells and for the patients who need the treatment.

One such patient, Cathy Tidman, was also at the unveiling with her husband, David. Cathy, a patient of Dr. Hay, had to travel to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio because her cell therapy wasn’t available in Canada. She is excited that this therapy will soon be available locally, calling it an “absolute game changer.”

Cathy described the process she went through: she and David travelled to Cleveland for about a week so she could receive chemo and have the cells extracted; then she waited eight weeks at home while the cells were being prepared; then they returned to Cleveland for six weeks for her to have more chemo and receive the re-engineered cells.

“Our children were old enough to understand why we were doing it — in their late teens, early 20s — and with our jobs we were also in a position to be able to go, but that whole aspect of being away from home for weeks on end was hard.”

The Tidmans emphasized the availability imbalance involved in receiving treatment so far from home: for those without the means to travel or afford child care, the treatment may be unobtainable.

David Tidman said, “Since Cathy was sick, I scream it from the rooftops that in Kingston and this area we don’t brag enough about what’s here and what we’re capable of doing. This is world-class. Unfortunately, we test-drove a lot of different places to have care — in Cleveland, Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston — and I believe that Kingston was by far the best of what we have in the research.”

He referred to the saying “speed kills,” but pointed out that what many people don’t understand about cancer is that “it’s not going slow. Every second counts, and in between those times, when you’re watching the tumours grow and you’re watching as your blood gets sicker…  to be able to speed that up? Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time in hospitals; we saw a lot of people that didn’t make it. And so, to speed that up and have the research facility here? It’s real people, real lives that’ll be saved here.”

Dave Tidman and cancer patient Cathy Tidman. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

New facilities and innovations in care

The Sinclair family’s gift will support two new science facilities equipped to help researchers advance new discoveries and therapies for patients. 

A state-of-the-art imaging facility will give researchers a real-time view of the immune system interacting with cancer cells. It will advance understanding of how cancer cells defend against the immune system and resist treatments, allowing researchers to advance new drugs and therapies. 

A second specialized biomanufacturing facility will be developed to enable personalized cellular immunotherapy treatments that harness the power of the body’s own immune system to target and destroy cancer cells. These therapies are among the most promising new approaches to cancer treatment, and this facility aims to make them available to Canadian patients faster for clinical trials. 

Researchers’ abilities to assess the impact of treatments on patients and to evaluate drug effectiveness will also be strengthened by the donation, and an innovation fund will be launched to support greater research collaboration and team-based research. 

Training the next cancer researchers 

The Sinclair family’s gift will benefit aspiring cancer researchers as well. The university said a new training program will be established to enable students and early-career researchers to gain hands-on experience and mentorship from senior cancer researchers in a multidisciplinary environment, so they can emerge as highly skilled leaders in the field. 

“From basic science research and testing new drugs in trials to assessing the value of treatments, this gift supports the institute’s approach to taking cancer research from labs all the way to patients, and back,” said Institute director Craig. “This gift has the potential to dramatically improve the way we treat cancer.” 

Founded in 2001, the now-named Sinclair Cancer Research Institute has grown into the largest research concentration in Queen’s Health Sciences, and it is committed to improving cancer control through research that spans disciplines and investigates connections among fundamental, clinical, and population research. To learn more about this important gift and its impact, visit the Cara and Murray Sinclair Cancer Research Institute website.

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