Nov. 21, 2022

Vaccine innovation targets high-risk childhood cancers

Celebrate Calgary Innovation Week, Nov. 21 – 27
Dr. Aru Narendran in his lab.
Dr. Aru Narendran in his lab. Carmen Coelho – Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute

Each year, Calgary Innovation Week, powered by Platform Calgary (Nov. 21-27) showcases the diversity and depth of innovation and technology in this city and celebrates the people and ideas that are having an impact. One example comes from pediatric cancer researcher Dr. Aru Narendran, MD, PhD.  

Narendran is a pediatric oncology physician working with a team to develop a novel therapeutic vaccine approach for treating high-risk, difficult-to-treat childhood cancers, including vaccines that elicit an immune response against stubborn tumour cells. This work is still in pre-clinical stages but, if successful, offers new hope for children and families affected by cancer.

The idea of developing vaccines to treat cancer is not a new concept. However, researchers are using cutting-edge techniques to advance our ability to design highly effective molecules that can stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.

“Often, the cancer cells come up with various tricks to shield themselves from recognition and subsequent killing by the body’s natural immune system,” says Narendran. “On the other hand, we hope to use vaccines to help awaken the immune system to recognize the cancer cells and to launch an attack while sparing healthy cells of the body.”

Childhood cancer in Canada

Although overall outcomes of childhood cancer have improved greatly in recent years, a significant number of Canadian children experience treatment resistance to all currently available medications. For this reason, researchers like Narendran are working to discover safe and more effective cancer treatments and clinical trials.

As the only Canadian centre within the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Investigators’ Consortium, Narendran’s team at the Alberta Children’s Hospital is collaborating with other researchers globally to bring forward innovative childhood cancer medications. His work focuses entirely on developing new “discovered-in-Alberta” cancer drugs and working with other investigators and pharmaceutical companies to bring in some of the successful adult cancer treatment drugs to further improve the care of children with high-risk cancers.  

Narendran is cross-appointed with UCalgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital. He holds the Kids Cancer Care Chair in Clinical and Translational Research in Pediatric Oncology, funded through Kids Cancer Care and the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation.

Creating cancer-treatment collaboration

The new Calgary Cancer Centre will allow researchers like Narendran the ability to collaborate and innovate unlike ever before — and not just in Calgary. The world-class space, set to open in 2023/24, has been designed in a way that allows both the clinical side and the research side to work down the hall from one another. This facility will be a leader across North America and help foster the growth of innovation in the cancer space.

“This new Cancer Centre helps in many ways,” Narendran says. “The facility brings resources and opportunities together in one place, as well as like-minded individuals and researchers to generate knowledge that translates to both children and adults battling cancer in Canada. There is also the great opportunity to effectively train the next generation of cancer scientists and doctors to advance the care of all affected by cancer.”

Calgary Innovation Week

Calgary Innovation Week is filled with workshops, panels, demo days and an Indigenous Tech showcase with topics ranging from fintech to raising capital. As the presenting sponsor, UCalgary has been invited to attend, speak and present an award for Innovation Week’s two signature events, the Launch Party and the Founders and Funders Dinner. Browse the events calendar here and learn more about Innovation Week here.

Dr. Aru Narendran, MD, PhD, is a professor in the departments of Oncology, Paediatrics, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Physiology & Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM. Learn more about his research here.

Child Health and Wellness

UCalgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Institute, top scientists across campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and our community to create a better future for children through research.


The Calgary Cancer Centre Campaign is on a mission to OWN.CANCER by raising $250 million in support of improved research, treatment and care. This game-changing initiative is backed by three trusted community institutions: Alberta Health Services, Canada’s first and largest fully integrated provincial health system; UCalgary, a globally recognized leader in medical research and home to tomorrow’s health-care professionals; and the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the official fundraising partner for all 17 cancer-care centres across the province. The Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation is a proud partner of the pediatric interests of the OWN.CANCER campaign.

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