John Lewis: New wave of prostate cancer research

Research rockstar: In the zone

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It’s early July and research is in full swing at Dr. John Lewis’s lab on the fifth floor of the Katz Group Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research on the University of Alberta campus. Natural light bathes the lab benches, which are about three-quarters occupied. New arrivals are expected soon. Several team members donning white coats are engaged in discussion or working solo at the gleaming benches. The place smacks of industry, which is remarkable considering that Lewis and his team took residence less than two months ago.


NEW WAVE: As the inaugural holder of the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research, Dr. John Lewis has already performed beyond anyone’s expectations.
Photo by Curtis Trent

They managed to pack up the research they had underway at Lewis’s lab in London, Ontario and continue their work, nearly seamlessly, at the new space in Edmonton. “We’re still waiting for a few things,” he says. “But we’re hitting our stride.”

This morning, like most days, Lewis is fuelled with exactly two pops of espresso, one from the machine at home and one from the machine on his desk. Dressed in a business-casual suit jacket and blue-striped shirt, open at the collar, he’s perfectly ready for the “lab warming” party taking place later in the day. A well-cut mop of brown hair falls across his forehead, adding to a youthful look and, at 42, he is young – at least for this job.

Lewis is the inaugural holder of the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research. It’s the latest cutting-edge research chair funded by Alberta Cancer Foundation donors and his presence on campus is a coup for the province.

But there is another story percolating in the background, one that drives Lewis’s. It starts before his PhD in biochemistry at the University of Victoria and before his work at Scripps Research Institute in California. It starts when he was still a teenager in Owen Sound, Ontario. In 1989, unknown to the teenage Lewis, a 60-year-old man in Vancouver was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Now 83 and a long-time Albertan, Frank Sojonky has lived with cancer for 23 years. Through a combination of luck, participation in auspiciously-timed clinical trials – and surely due in part to his irascible nature – Sojonky had danced back-and-forth with the disease, outlasting even the most hopeful predictions. An entrepreneur with what he calls “a long and varied career in business, finance and real estate,” Sojonky asked his Edmonton oncologist Dr. Peter Venner years ago what sort of help he could provide for prostate cancer treatment and research. Venner’s answer was a $270,000, 3-D ultrasound to diagnose and monitor prostate cancer patients.

Sojonky quickly raised $400,000 for the foundation.

“I was incensed to find out that there was no formal prostate cancer research program in Alberta,” Sojonky says. “In the richest province in Canada!”

Sojonky and a group of fundraisers called the Bird Dogs set out to change that. He recruited local businessman and longtime Alberta Cancer Foundation supporter Bob Bentley to the cause by announcing Bentley’s participation – to his surprise – at a press conference. Bentley has been involved with the Bird Dogs ever since. Over the years, the Bird Dogs worked with the Alberta Cancer Foundation to create the endowed $5-million chair. They later raised an additional $3 million for ongoing research. Joint funding initiatives and an additional $6 million from the Alberta Cancer Prevention Legacy Fund brought investment in the chair to $14 million.

When the University of Alberta search and selection committee invited the Bird Dogs to meet in 2011, Lewis’s and Frank Sojonky’s paths finally crossed Lewis sat down at a table in a meeting room, Sojonky and his wife Carla on one side and a small handful of Bird Dogs on the other. “We listened to him, interviewed him and gave him a stern going over,” Sojonky says, his voice still strong over the phone from his holiday home in Canmore. The group was impressed by Lewis’s research, his organizational skills and his attitude. “My wife Carla has the ability to cut through all the smoke and mirrors and she was impressed,” Sojonky says. “In just two months in Edmonton, he has performed beyond anyone’s expectations.” In 20-odd years, Alberta went from non-starter in prostate cancer research to potential world-leader. Lewis is aware of the high hopes pinned on him. The Bird Dogs have also geared up again, promising to raise an additional $5 million, which the Alberta Cancer Foundation will match dollar for dollar.

Propped on the window ledge in Lewis’s office are several pictures, including a frame of an image that spells out “SURFING.” Beside it is a picture of him on his board in the California waves. “We’d wake up, grab a board from the quiver and go surfing before work,” he says. Lewis met his wife, Dr. Natalie MacLean-Lewis, at a conference in Monterey, California. “She got me interested in imaging,” he says, settling into his office chair. He expanded on that interest at Scripps Research Institute in California. “My goal in San Diego was to take biochemistry and imaging and apply it to cancer,” he explains. “At Scripps I trained in the development of nanoparticles.”


FRESH FACE: John Lewis’s move to Alberta was driven by people like 83-year-old Frank Sojonky, who has lived with cancer for 23 years and helped fund the research chair Lewis holds.
Photo by Curtis Trent

Nanoparticles are engineered particles used medically for drug delivery and imaging. “You can basically engineer them to do whatever you want,” Lewis says. Nanoparticles typically have a cavity that scientists can load with drugs. “We can decorate the outside with imaging agents, so we can see where the nanoparticles are going,” he says. “And we put targeting components on antibodies that hone in on components of the tumour.”

Once nanoparticles are locked and loaded, they need a cloaking device – in this case a polyethylene glycol polymer – to get by the body’s defences. “Especially the liver,” Lewis says, “which will clear the body of anything larger than about five nanometres.” (A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.) The nanoparticles his team develops are massive on a molecular scale, up to 85 nanometres in diameter.

Lewis has always had a technical bent and the possibility of working with nanoparticles, a totally geeky-cool endeavour, holds an appeal that is right up there alongside curing cancer. In true translational medicine, Lewis wants to take his discoveries from bench to bedside, partnering with clinicians on the one hand and basic scientists on the other. “Clinicians have an interest in research but no time, and basic scientists are distant from the everyday work of a clinic,” he says. The intermediary is the clinical fellows on the team: the link between basic scientists and clinical doctors, or “real doctors,” as his four-year-old daughter would say.

“She says my wife is a ‘real doctor’, ” Lewis says, adding that his wife Natalie is a resident in internal medicine. “She calls me a ‘chicken doctor.’ ” This is because his research takes place largely on chicken embryos. “You want to see them?” he asks. We leave his office, past the wobbly-looking chicken his daughter made out of an egg carton, which stands sentinel on a cabinet near the door.

Lewis leads the way back past the benches, opens a door and steps into the microscopy suite. “The really cool stuff is in here,” he says. The room is filled with top-line pharmaceutical-grade equipment. Team member Dr. Desmond Pink is at work at a stainless steel countertop. He nods a hello. Nearby, the window at the front of a rotating incubator shows some metals beakers, agitating at an alarming speed.

And then the headline act: the chicken embryos.

“We study the way cancer moves. Watching this process in a mouse model is very difficult, time consuming and expensive. So we’ve actually developed a chicken embryo for human cancer. We crack them, grow them in these dishes and add human cancer cell lines,” he says. His team maintains a bio-bank of about 150 human cancer cell lines. “We can watch them grow for days under a microscope.” He’s standing beside hundreds of eggs, cracked and emptied into dozens of trays. Each egg looks vaguely like a lemon-coloured tropical flower, with darker streaks of colour emanating from a blob in the centre.

“We watch as blood vessels grow into the tumour, spread and invade.” Lewis leans forward, gesturing, as if to illustrate the process. He’s starting to warm up. If he’s the chicken doctor, this is the roost. “Compared to mice, we can do thousands of embryos a week. We do large experiments, with clear-cut answers that you wouldn’t see with other models.” Behind him, Pink only halfway listens to the explanation. He already knows this is where the cool stuff happens.

Catch the Wave

You have a four-year-old and are expecting a new baby. What has surprised you most about parenting?
The insights and observations. We play punch-plane instead of punch-buggy and my daughter has the ability to see the tiniest glint of sunlight on a distant wing – and punch me – long before it’s visible to anyone else.

What have your wife or colleagues noticed about you that you weren’t aware of?
Apparently I have a look when I am not happy about something. I have no idea what it looks like, but it’s always pretty clear to other people.

What is it about surfing that appeals to you?
It forces you to interact with nature. There are moments of complete calm, punctuated by moments of extreme physical involvement.

You can’t surf in Edmonton.
No, but it’s a complete city with a rich culture and great outdoor spaces. I’m also into mountain biking and there’s no shortage of opportunities for that.

What’s lurking in the basement?
Wine. My wife and I like to travel and collect it.

Lines of Investigation

Lewis and his team have several programs currently underway in translational prostate cancer research. They’re finding more out all the time.

Here is a sample of some lines of investigation.

TESTING: “We anticipate we’ll have a blood test for prostate cancer within five years. We want to identify which cancers will move – the dangerous ones– and which will stay put.”

DRUG DELIVERY: “There are a lot of effective drugs out there, but they can be quite toxic to the organs, especially the liver. We’re trying to develop nanoparticles that can very specifically seek out and destroy a tumour by delivering the drugs to it directly.”

NOVEL ACTIVATION: “We’re looking at developing nanoparticles that are activated by certain things in the environment of a tumour, such as pH.”

NEW DETECTION: “We just published evidence that prostate cancer turns on a well-known hormone that is responsible for appetite. We wanted to know if this could work in patients to identify cancer as opposed to garden-variety prostate inflammation. We took tissue from surgery and incubated it with the targeted imaging agent to see if it would detect cancer, and it did.

For more information about the Bird Dogs campaign, contact Jane Weller, Alberta Cancer Foundation, 780-432-8358 or jane.weller@albertacancerfoundation.ca

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