Meet the Team Canada of Cancer Research: A Q&A with Dr. Rodney Ouellette

Meet Dr. Rodney Ouellette, Senior Researcher and Founder of the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton, New Brunswick

Rodney Ouellette was a high school student in a small town on the coast of New Brunswick, when a young man from British Columbia visited his school.

It was May of 1980, and Terry Fox had started his Marathon of Hope just 46 days earlier. In that time, the 22-year-old had run across Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and in the process, had begun to capture the imagination of Canadians with his message of hope and determination. By the time he arrived in New Brunswick, he was starting to amass large crowds whenever he spoke.

It was in a crowded gymnasium in Shediac, NB that Rodney Ouellete first heard Terry speak of his commitment to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. That encounter planted a seed that eventually blossomed into a career in cancer research. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry from Université de Moncton, he moved to Quebec, where he received both his MD and PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Université Laval in 1996. He then completed his residency in Family Medicine from Université de Sherbrooke in 1998, before returning to Moncton, where he helped found the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in 1998.

Over the next few decades, Dr. Ouellette played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Terry Fox Research Institute and its Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network, and more than 40 years after he first heard Terry speak, he continues to be committed to his cause, leading two cohorts that are contributing cases to the Network’s Gold Cohort.

We spoke to Dr. Ouellette to learn more about his career, and why he continues to be committed to Terry’s dream of finding better ways to treat cancer through research.

Why did you become a cancer researcher? Was there a particular moment or experience that led to this decision?

As a PhD student, I was attracted to cancer research because of the complexity of the challenge; however, only during my medical training did I realize the incredible burden it brought to individuals, their families and society. I was perplexed by the monolith approach to cancer therapy and how it lacked the tools for personalised treatment at the time.  For example, we were taught that an effective therapy may cure 30-40% of individuals; however, we had no way of knowing which patients would benefit and which would not.  This question has driven me throughout my career as a researcher focused on precision medicine and as a molecular pathologist trying to improve patient diagnostics and enable individualized treatment strategies.

Every day in the lab is fuelled by the memory of those I've seen fight; it's a quest not just for knowledge, but for hope and solutions that can change lives.

Cancer research is difficult: progress is slow and for every step forward there may be quite a few steps backwards or sideways. What inspires you to keep going? What life lessons have you learned through cancer research?

As a career researcher, what keeps me going in the face of cancer research's frustrating pace is the potential impact my work has on people's lives. Every discovery, no matter how small, can be a piece of the puzzle that will lead to impactful solutions. We are all working to find the breakthroughs; however, it is also collective journey of effort, learning, and resilience. The most enduring lesson I've learned is the importance of perseverance. Much like Terry’s Run, it is not a sprint but a marathon. Progress in cancer research mirrors life itself—unpredictable, often hard, but always moving forward. It teaches us to embrace uncertainty, to find strength in setbacks, and to celebrate every victory, however modest. I believe in power of collective effort and the enduring hope that with time and persistence, we can make a significant difference.

How would you explain your current research focus to a cancer patient or their family member?

Immunotherapies are promising new treatment options for many patients. Today, unfortunately, only a minority of patients will respond while the others will not. Existing tests are not able to accurately predict who will benefit from these therapies.  Our research focus looks at the information contained in a patient’s plasma and specifically in small virus-sized particles that our cells produce that are called extracellular vesicles (EVs).  The EVs contain a wealth of biological information like RNA and proteins that not only gives us insight into workings of the cancer but also key insight into the person’s immune status.  Before our patients receive the therapy, we use artificial intelligence (AI) to decode the information and reveal distinct signatures identifying patient who respond and those that do not.  We hope that with the information in non-responders, we can devise new combinations that will overcome their resistance.

What impact do you hope your research will have on cancer treatment and the outcomes for patients?

I believe that unlocking our immune system will lead to profound and durable control and in many cases cures for all cancer.  We still do not fully understand the immune system and how to direct it accurately for effective therapy. Part of the solution lies in the immune status of individual patients and how the cancer interacts to create obstacles to response. We are still early in this work; however, we are seeing clear differences in responders and non-responders that point to these potential obstacles.  I hope that our current research will provide the roadmap to understand why our immune system falters during immunotherapy and more importantly what can we do to overcome these obstacles by adding other novel or existing therapies to help more patients defeat their cancer.  

Just like Terry Fox united Canadians nearly 45 years ago, the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is uniting researchers, clinicians, patients and administrators from cancer treatment and research institutions across Canada to accelerate precision medicine. How important is this collaboration and what impact do you think it could have on cancer research and treatment?

The Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network embodies a transformative approach to cancer research and treatment, mirroring the unifying spirit of Terry Fox's journey. This collaboration is pivotal, marking a shift towards leveraging collective expertise across Canada to make significant strides in precision medicine. By uniting researchers, clinicians, and patients, we're fostering an ecosystem that accelerates the translation of laboratory discoveries into lifesaving treatments. This synergy not only speeds up the pace of innovation but also ensures that advancements are patient-centered and accessible across the country. The impact of such collaboration could be monumental, potentially ushering in a new era where cancer treatments are highly personalized, more effective, and less invasive. It's a beacon of hope for patients and a testament to the power of unity in confronting one of humanity's most daunting challenges.

If a researcher, clinician, patient or donor asked you why the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is important, what would you tell them?

I would say that the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is our best chance for impactful and synergistic research to overcome cancer in Canada. It's not just about advancing cancer research; it's about transforming how we approach cancer treatment through precision medicine. By bringing together the brightest minds across disciplines and institutions, we're able to fast-track the development of targeted therapies that are both effective and less harmful to patients. This network signifies hope and unity, ensuring that every Canadian affected by cancer has access to the most cutting-edge treatments. It's a testament to our collective commitment to turning the tide against cancer, inspired by Terry Fox's enduring legacy of perseverance and hope.

What does Terry Fox mean to you? How does Terry inspire you?

To me, Terry Fox is a pure symbol of courage and unwavering commitment to higher goal. Meeting him during his Marathon of Hope in Shediac, NB, as a high school student left an indelible mark on my life. His perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds, running with a prosthetic leg across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research, inspired me deeply. That encounter planted a seed that eventually blossomed into my career in cancer research. Terry's legacy motivates me daily to push the boundaries of what is possible in the fight against cancer. He embodies the belief that one person's courage and determination can ignite change, driving me to pursue breakthroughs that could transform lives. Terry Fox's journey is a powerful reminder that even the most challenging obstacles can be overcome with passion and persistence, a guiding principle in both my personal and professional life.

"The Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network embodies a transformative approach to cancer research and treatment, mirroring the unifying spirit of Terry Fox's journey."