Ottawa Hospital appoints new director of cancer research

Dr. Rebecca Auer has spent the past decade treating cancer patients and researching how to improve treatments and extend lives in Ottawa and around the world.

Now she will spread that inspiration to the 300 researchers she will oversee at The Ottawa Hospital as its new director of cancer research.

The hospital announced Thursday that the 44-year-old surgical oncologist and scientist will replace Dr. Ian Lorimer, who was the interim director during an international search to find a permanent replacement for Dr. Michael McBurney, who had held the position for 20 years.

“It’s very exciting and I’m very enthusiastic. I’ve had a lot of support to both come to this position and since I have taken over,” said Auer.

“(My) goal will be to accelerate the exciting cutting-edge discoveries from our researchers and translate them through clinical trials and from clinical trials to patients — and to create a culture of research at The Ottawa Hospital, as well as a platform for research that allows that to happen.”

A native of Ottawa and mother of three, Auer was named top medical student at Queen’s University in 2000, top master’s student in science at the University of Ottawa in 2004, top resident researcher at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in 2007 and distinguished young professor at the uOttawa in 2013.

“Dr. Auer’s research could change how cancer is treated around the world,” said Dr. Virginia Roth, chief of staff at The Ottawa Hospital. “We are fortunate to have Dr. Auer inspire our young physicians and researchers at a time of such exciting change and discovery in this field.”

Since starting her own research laboratory at The Ottawa Hospital in 2007, Auer has focused on the interplay of cancer, surgery and the immune system. As part of her new role, she will continue to support the research focused on understanding how cancer surgery suppresses the immune system and using new therapies to prevent the spread of cancer after surgery.

“I think this is a really interesting area because so many patients have to have surgery for removal of the cancer,” she says. “And in many of those patients the cancer comes back, so if we can understand what determinants there might be in cancer coming back, and prevent them, then we can improve outcomes.”

Auer says one of the many advances in research over the past decade has been the ability to dissect the cancer cells at the molecular level and to adjust treatment accordingly.

“We are moving from naming cancers in terms of where they come from  — you have colon cancer, you have prostate cancer — and how they grow and look under a microscope, to really defining them in a molecular way … and the treatment the patient would get would depend on what all those taglines are.”

Auer says she draws inspiration from her colleagues and the many patients who show strength and resilience in the face a cancer diagnosis. And with survival rates on the rise over the past decade for certain cancers — for example, patients with metastatic melanoma now have a 20 to 40 per cent chance of being “disease free” for a long period — she is set on maintaining that trajectory.

“It’s been exciting to watch some of the patients who have been in some of these early trials that had amazing responses, and to hear them talking at a fundraiser breakfast or something and say, ‘I thought that this was it, and now all of a sudden I’m facing this new life, this new lease on life.’

“You think, ‘Wow, if you can have any small part in that, that’s pretty amazing.’ ”