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Patients a “source of strength” for Dr. Rebecca Auer – the new head of cancer research

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Dr. Rebecca Auer is with a patient

“My patients are a great source of strength for me,” said Dr. Rebecca Auer.

Meet Dr. Rebecca Auer. Some days she wears scrubs and removes tumours in the operating room. Other days she wears a lab coat and investigates the secrets of cancer cells. In between all this, she runs clinical trials, trains students and residents, takes part on international committees and raises three young boys with her husband. Now this innovative surgeon-scientist has another job: leading more than 300 cancer researchers at The Ottawa Hospital.

When asked what inspires her, she said patients always come first.

“My patients are a great source of strength for me,” Dr. Auer said. “They approach tough situations with grace, gratitude and resilience. They make me realize how incredible humans are. They remind me what matters the most every day.”

Amazing colleagues and a world-class hospital provide inspiration too, she said.

Of course, inspiration doesn’t go very far without hard work, something that Dr. Auer learned early on.

“I never really felt I had any natural ability, but what I do have is tenacity,” she said. “When I fall down, I get back up.”

That tenacity has more than paid off. The Ottawa native was named the top medical student at Queen’s University in 2000, the top master’s student in science at the University of Ottawa in 2004, the top resident researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in 2007 and Distinguished Young Professor at the University of Ottawa in 2013.

Since starting her own research laboratory at The Ottawa Hospital in 2007, Dr. Auer has focused on the interplay between cancer, surgery and the immune system, and has made many important discoveries.

“Surgery is very effective in removing solid tumours,” she said. “However, we’re now realizing that, tragically, surgery can also suppress the immune system in a way that makes it easier for any remaining cancer cells to persist and spread to other organs.”

Dr. Auer with colleague

Dr. Rebecca Auer leads more than 300 cancer researchers at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Auer’s team has discovered how this happens and they are now testing different strategies to enhance the immune system around the time of cancer surgery. For example, they have found that a common treatment for erectile dysfunction combined with the flu vaccine may be able to help the immune system mop up cancer cells left behind after surgery. Dr. Auer is now testing this unconventional approach in a world-first clinical trial.

In addition to her role at The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Auer is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and holds a Tier 2 Clinical Research Chair in Perioperative Cancer Therapeutics from the University’s Faculty of Medicine. She is also a key member of BioCanRx, a network of cancer immunotherapy and oncolytic virus researchers based at The Ottawa Hospital. She collaborates widely with laboratory scientists, surgeons, oncologists, nurses and epidemiologists.

“I’m really excited to take on this new role because I see an opportunity to bring people together, build bridges and accelerate the translation of our research into benefits for patients,” said Dr. Auer. “The Ottawa Hospital is already leading the world in several areas of cancer research and there is great potential for further growth.”

“Dr. Auer is an outstanding addition to our leadership team,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “Her tenacity, collaborative spirit and passion for her patients and science will be a huge asset as our researchers continue to redesign the future of cancer care.”

“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.”

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