Meet the Team Canada of Cancer Research: A Q&A with Dr. Hanne Ostergaard

Starting this month, the Network will be introducing members of the Team Canada of Cancer Research. The first interview in this series is with Dr. Hanne Ostergaard, director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta.

Dr. Hanne Ostergaard was in a fourth-year undergraduate immunology class when she first heard about the cancer-killing potential of killer T cells. She was immediately fascinated, and decided then and there that she wanted to dedicate her career to discovering how the immune system can be harnessed to combat cancer. 

And she's done just that. After that fateful class, Dr. Ostergaard went on to obtain a PhD in immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Following post-doctoral studies at the Salk Institute, she joined the University of Alberta, where she is now a professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology and the director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta.

Still faithful to the decision she made many years ago, her research explores how killer T cells migrate into tumours to suppress cancer growth, and how this activity can be channeled to create new therapies that effectively target cancer cells and have fewer side effects.

We spoke to Dr. Ostergaard to learn more about her research and why she is so excited to be a part of the Team Canada of Cancer Research.

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

Hanne Ostergaard: My grandmother had breast cancer before I was born and survived, but I saw the scars of the brutal surgery and radiation therapy she endured.  My aunt also had breast cancer at a young age and went through very aggressive chemotherapy while trying to take care of a toddler and a baby.  I knew from that experience that treatments for cancer needed to be more targeted and with fewer side effects.  I took an immunology course as a fourth year undergraduate and learned about killer T cells of the immune system and that they could kill cancer cells.  I decided at that time I wanted to work on killer T cells to exploit them to treat cancer so I started an undergraduate research project and then a PhD project studying these cells.  I have continued to work on these cells ever since I was an undergraduate student.

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?

Seeing cancer immunotherapy go from a niche area of research to an entire discipline and witnessing the progress that has been made with various cancer immunotherapies such as checkpoint inhibitors and CAR T cells keeps me working on cancer.  We now see patients living more than a decade after being told there were no treatment options left for them.  These treatments don’t work for everyone, so we still have much more work to do.  We are in an exciting time and new discoveries are being made almost weekly that informs us about new ways the immune system can fight cancer.  I see many novel therapies coming to patients in the next few years.  This is what inspires me.  Lessons that I have learned are that persistence and patience are essential to keep going even when things are not working and that cancer research requires the contributions and collaborations of many researchers, clinicians, and patients working together to bring fresh perspectives and ideas.

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

I study CD8 killer T cells of the immune system. These cells are essential for the elimination of many virus infections, but they are also able to kill cancer cells. The problem is that cancer cells can become resistant to this killing or become invisible to killer T cells. Cancer cells can play tricks on the killer T cells to make it hard for them to enter the tumour or make them less functional.  We have been working on understanding how killer T cells migrate into a tumour and how they kill cancer cells.  More recently we have been looking at different types of killer T cells and how they can make the tumour environment more hostile towards tumour cells.

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

I am closer to the end of my career and know that it is unlikely that anything I do at this point will result in treatments for patients. However, I hope that our work, particularly some projects we are working on now, will allow other researchers to build on our work resulting in improved outcomes for cancer patients. That is how research works. It is exceedingly rare that a single person or team produces a cure, but rather that each new study builds on the work that has gone before and the cumulative work of many researchers allows us to get a better understanding of how the immune system responds to cancer, resulting in new treatment approaches.  It takes a community of cancer researchers to generate new cancer treatments, not individuals working in isolation.

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?

This network is very important since it is through collaboration that we as researchers can accelerate discoveries about cancer that result in successful treatments. The information that will be collected on the 15,000 tumours from patients will provide an enormous amount of data that will be used by many cancer researchers throughout the country to generate new ideas and approaches to treating cancer.  Canada is a diverse country and the data collected will represent that diversity. Researchers will analyse the data in different ways to ask unique questions, and this will provide us with a much fuller understanding of how cancer arises and how it can be treated.

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

The MOHCCN will result in an incredibly useful repository of data. However, for me, that is not the most important aspect of the network. It is because it is pan-Canadian and includes cancer centers and researchers from coast to coast. I have met several cancer researchers through our meetings and interactions.  While I have not established any new collaborations yet, as a director of a cancer research institute, I am able to help people in our institute connect with potential collaborators across the country.  This is so valuable as it fosters collaborations that may have never happened in the absence of the network.

To wrap up, we just wanted to ask you: What does Terry Fox mean to you? How does Terry inspire you?

I did not grow up in Canada and I can still remember the first fall after I moved to Canada, I kept hearing about Terry Fox and the Terry Fox Run. I had no idea what it was all about. There were a number teams from the university participating in the run. I was invited by another cancer researcher to go to City Hall, along with a bunch of school kids, to an event to celebrate the run.  It was at this event where I learned about Terry Fox and his inspiring story. I had never seen so much enthusiasm for raising funds for cancer research, and it made a real impression on me. 

We are in an exciting time and new discoveries are being made almost weekly that informs us about new ways the immune system can fight cancer. I see many novel therapies coming to patients in the next few years. This is what inspires me.