RLCF’s Q&A with… BC Cancer Agency’s Dr. John Webb

As many of you know the Robert L. Conconi Foundation has partnered with the BC Cancer Foundation on a matching gift campaign to launch immunotherapy clinical trials in BC. Today we introduce to you Dr. John Webb, Scientist and Senior Project leader who specializes in T-cell and immunotherapy research at the BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre in Victoria, B.C. For over 20 years Dr. Webb worked both in public and private sectors in North America, including the early days of immunotherapy in Canada. We are thrilled to have someone like him here in B.C. working on immunotherapies

We recently heard from Dr. Brad Nelson, Director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre on his thoughts on immunotherapy. This week we caught up with Dr. John Webb. Read our Q&A with Dr. John Webb below:

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you got started in this field of work…

Although originally born in England, my parents immigrated to Canada when I was quite young, and I grew up in the ‘other’ London, in southwestern Ontario. I obtained a B.Sc. and then an M.Sc. (master’s) degree, both in sciences, from the University of Western Ontario and then ventured west to earn my Ph.D. at UBC in Vancouver.

In 1993, I moved down to Seattle to pursue post-doctoral studies and this is where I really became immersed in the field of immunology. Seattle was a real hotbed for immunology at that time, with lots of great science going on. I ended up working side by side with scientists working in both the private and public sectors, a ‘blended’ model which proved to be very productive scientifically and which was a very enlightening period for me.

In 1998, I was offered a full time faculty position in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, and I decided to bring my then growing family back to Canada. Although those were also exciting and productive times in Ottawa, I was unfortunately ‘tainted’ by the biotech bug after being in Seattle, and when the opportunity came up, I jumped back to the private sector in 2003 when offered a position with a Victoria-based biotech company. Besides being located in the amazingly beautiful city of Victoria, the company I worked for was focused on a vaccine-based approach for treatment of HPV-associated cancers, and were actually one of the early pioneers in the field of cancer immunotherapy in Canada. During this time we made some very seminal discoveries on how to drive strong anti-tumor immunity through vaccination. Using this approach we were able to drive robust expansion of tumor-specific T lymphocytes, which in mouse tumor models were able to completely and permanently eradicate tumors in a matter of weeks. I became fully convinced about what the immune system could achieve in terms of fighting cancer.

How did you get started at the BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre?

In 2007, I joined the Deeley Research Centre at the BC Cancer Agency under the direction of Dr. Brad Nelson. Interestingly enough, although we didn’t know one another at the time, Brad was actually doing cancer immunology in Seattle at the same time as I was, thus we had similar backgrounds and interests. When I joined the Deeley research team I was able to continue my work on immunotherapy cancer – primarily focused on ovarian cancer by this time. Ovarian cancer is unfortunately a very lethal disease, but at the same time there is growing evidence that anti-tumor immunity plays an important role in patient outcomes. Our laboratory has played an important role in terms of defining the types of cells that participate in this response and we are now considered one of the leading labs in the world in this area.

What are your day-to-day activities at the Deeley Research Centre?

Because ovarian cancer is such a symptomatically ‘silent’ disease, when patients reach the centre they unfortunately often have fairly advanced disease. Consequently surgery to remove the tumor has traditionally been a mainstay of treatment. Because these tumors are essentially treatment-naïve at this point, it provides us with the unique opportunity to assess the natural (or spontaneous) immunity that the patient has mounted against these tumors. In doing so we can figure out why some patients mount an immune response and some don’t, and this is the type of question we pursue on a daily basis. Subsequently, we have decided to take the knowledge we have gleaned from these studies and put them into action by establishing what is known as a TIL (tumor infiltrating lymphocyte) immunotherapy program. This involves harvesting, expanding and then freezing these T cells (from a few 100,000 to many millions), a process which takes about 3-4 weeks to complete. In the lab our goal is to spend the first year or so learning how to grow these cell products, which will allow us to come out of the research stage and into the manufacturing stage and will allow us to start treating patients.

Why immunotherapy? What makes you most excited about this type of treatment?

Until quite recently immunotherapy was considered somewhat of “fringe” science in cancer treatment– however over the last decade or so it has become more and more mainstream, indeed a real phenomenon. As said above, I have also seen’ first hand’ how powerful anti-tumor immunity can be. Immunotherapy is also a very targeted way of treating cancers, and leaves very little collateral damage compared to traditional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation.

We’re in 2015 right now, what does 2030 look like for this type of cancer care?

By 2030, I see immunotherapy, which is still in the experimental phase right now, becoming more of a standard of care. As long as immunotherapy is proved to be safe, it will move up as a “front line” therapy because it is more effective and a targeted treatment. Monoclonal antibodies, another form of cancer immunotherapy, are already quickly becoming mainstream.

What do we need to do to get there?

In the TIL therapy program, our plan is to harvest T cells from tumor specimens removed during initial surgery, expand these T cells in the lab and then bank them for future use, if and when the patient’s tumor recurs. This involves growing the cells in the laboratory environment which pushes us into the realm of pharmaceutical-style manufacturing process, with many regulatory hurdles that need to be cleared. First and foremost we need to establish that our TIL manufacturing processes and treatments are safe and are following a Health Canada mandated approach. The more clinical trials that we do to prove they are safe and effective, will allow us to bring these new types of treatment to the mainstream for all British Columbians.

The Conconi matching gift opportunity will be supporting to help launch these immunotherapy clinical trials and getting out of the manufacturing stage and into more of pharmaceutical stage to help save lives.

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Thanks for chatting with us Dr. Webb!

To have your gift matched dollar for dollar by the Robert L. Conconi Foundation to the BC Cancer Foundation, click here.

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