Canada Research Chair renewal enables marquee studies

Dr. Kerry Courneya, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer Dr. Kerry Courneya is involved in a variety of multi-disciplinary, large-scale physical activity and cancer studies across Canada and Australia.

Over the past decade the correlations between physical activity and cancer prevention, treatment recovery and survivorship have become increasing clearer: exercise is, without dispute, a key component in the treatment of a disease that claims up to 10 million lives globally each year, according to the American Cancer Society’s Global Facts and Figures.

Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Physical Activity and Cancer, Dr. Kerry Courneya, is one of the pioneering minds in this burgeoning field.  With the recent federal announcement of new and renewed CRCs, Courneya, whose Tier 1CRC was renewed for a further seven years, says it’s a not only welcome recognition of his work at the national and international level, but a welcome boost for his Behavioural Medicine Lab and the large scale projects he currently has underway.

“The greatest benefit of the CRC is the protected research time,” says Courneya, “and that enables me to do – and this is an expectation of the CRC program – higher-profile, larger scale,  projects that will have an impact on both the field and practice. I call these the ‘marquee’ projects.”

Several of these marquee projects are currently underway, including the CARE trial, an exercise intervention in breast cancer patients going onto chemotherapy. “We’ve accrued 301women into this trial,” says Courneya. Working with cancer centres in Vancouver and Ottawa, Courneya is looking at the effectiveness of aerobic versus resistance training in women with breast cancer.

A second large-scale trial, the CHALLENGE trial, is a multi-national trial involving participants in Canada and Australia and co-led by Courneya, that “is looking at an exercise intervention in colon cancer survivors with disease-free survival or recurrence as the primary end point,” he explains.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the first study looking at whether exercise can reduce the risk of the disease coming back in any cancer survivor group.”

The research team hopes to randomize 962 colon cancer survivors from 20 cancer centres across Canada and 10 across Australia into the study.

In addition, he’ll be co-leading the ground-breaking AMBER study – a CIHR (Canada Institutes of Health Research) team grant, focusing on physical activity and breast cancer survivorship which shortly begins recruiting 1500 newly-diagnosed breast cancer survivors. “This is the first study to have physical activity and fitness at its core,” says Courneya. “Most studies might have a self-reported physical activity component but this one is grounded in physical activity and fitness and built around it”.

“As such, components of the study including maximal exercise testing in cardio-respiratory fitness, maximal strength testing, muscular endurance testing, body composition assessment, and accelerometers to give us an objective measure of active and sedentary behaviours.”

Courneya is also involved in the BETA trial, led by Christine Friedenreich, which will randomize 400 post-menopausal women into a supervised exercise intervention for a year looking at bio-marker risk factors for breast cancer in women who are at high risk for the disease. It, too, is the largest study to do so.

Courneya may be a busy researcher, but, with more time for research afforded by the CRC, he’s also supervising a large cohort of graduate students. There’s no question, they benefit too.

“The additional support for research afforded by the CRC funding means more support for graduate students in the lab and the ability to take on more students – and it gives me more time to interact with them in developing their research programs,” says Courneya, adding that’s an added attraction for potential graduate students interested in this field too.

With a slate of projects in progress that will take him well beyond his second term as a CRC, Courneya is looking forward to the brand new Alberta Institute for Physical Activity and Health (AIPAH), slated to be housed on the top floor of the new Physical Activity and Wellness Centre, which breaks ground in spring 2012.

For Courneya, the close quarters with his research team, student cohort and other researchers in physical activity and health will afford clear advantages.

“The faculty’s behavioural medicine researchers will be housed here together, as will other researchers who may be looking at diabetes, heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease and exercise, for example, and that makes for good quality interaction. I think the AIPAH will facilitate excellent inter-disciplinary collaborations between other researchers in this field – and that’s very positive.”