Oct. 26, 2021
Gift enables lab's work to modify immune system, to better fight cancer and save lives
Jeff Burns, BComm’84, was a character. He was a proud Calgarian, born and raised, an outdoor enthusiast and a gifted musician. As a young boy, he would challenge his mother to test his perfect pitch by hitting a key on the piano while his back was turned — and he always got it right.
Husband to his best friend, Kim, and proud father to their two children, Jeff was a devoted family man. And today, Oct. 26, he would have been celebrating his 61st birthday with them.
In January of 2020, Jeff underwent an ultrasound to try to identify what had been causing some recent stomach pain. The diagnosis was grim: pancreatic cancer. Within weeks, he had started chemotherapy at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
“He was in the hospital when he told us,” says Pat Burns, Jeff’s mother, as she recalls the day she and her husband, Jim, learned of their son’s diagnosis. “I couldn't believe it. I somehow tried to just block it out. He said that the doctors were going to do everything they could. I think they did do everything they could.”
Over the next year, Jeff underwent several rounds of chemo until his doctors said they couldn’t do any more. He passed away on March 6, 2021.
“It was like a punch in the stomach,” says Kim Burns, Jeff’s wife. “Sixty is young. There were a lot of things he still wanted to do.”
Though the family has been devastated by the loss, they’ve found some comfort in being able to help others who may face a similar experience — by supporting groundbreaking cancer research taking place right here in Calgary.
Pat and Jim’s contribution to the OWN.CANCER campaign will support the Alberta Cellular Therapy and Immune Oncology (ACTION) initiative, which is led by Dr. Douglas Mahoney, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and associate professor with the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. The program focuses on developing next-generation immunotherapies, which harness the body’s natural immune system to attack and kill cancer.
“The ability to stimulate an immune response against cancer was born out of an understanding of how our immune system identifies and responds to foreign pathogens — like viruses and bacteria. That's the fundamental principle of immunology,” says Mahoney. “Like with the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, you’re educating a person’s immune system as to what a foreign pathogen looks like. Should they then encounter that pathogen, the immune system can respond much more quickly.”
While cancer can be harder for the immune system to recognize as a threat, given that it grows out of the individual’s own cells and thus appears less ‘foreign,’ immunotherapies operate much like vaccines, says Mahoney. “We’re providing a cancer patient’s immune system with a set of instructions to help it identify and treat cancer.”
Certain types of chemotherapy are still going to be a mainstay of cancer treatment but, more and more, there's going to be the next option — which is immunotherapy, says Mahoney. For tomorrow’s cancer patients, this could mean more precise, more effective, and less toxic treatment — modifying their immune system to not only better fight their cancer, but also potentially protect them from developing a similar cancer in the future.
It’s an opportunity to transform cancer treatment and improve survival rates, in Alberta and beyond — and it’s made possible with the support of people like Jim and Pat Burns.
“It feels great to know that someone going through that has faith in our program and our team,” says Mahoney. “It’s very motivating.”
For the Burns family, being able to help advance cancer care in Calgary, the city Jeff was so proud to call home, is a natural way to honour his life.
“If it can save someone, it will be well worth it,” says Jim.
Doug Mahoney is an associate professor in the departments of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.
The Calgary Cancer Centre Campaign is on a mission to OWN.CANCER by raising $250 million in support of improved research, treatment and care at Calgary’s new world-class cancer centre. This game-changing initiative is backed by three trusted community institutions: Alberta Health Services, Canada’s first and largest fully integrated provincial health system; the University of Calgary, 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. Currently under construction, the Calgary Cancer Centre will open its doors in 2023 as the largest, most comprehensive cancer centre in Canada.