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Finding a Novel Strategy to Prevent Metastasis

posted by:
Neil W

“What my patients with early stage breast cancer really fear is to hear the word ‘metastasis’.” Most oncologists would agree with this statement, which I once heard from a presenter at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.  There is no doubt that being told you have metastatic breast cancer is a lot to take in, as it means that breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to other parts in the body. The disease becomes more advanced the farther it spreads. And, unfortunately, it also becomes incurable.

How can the appearance of metastases be prevented? One of the ways to address this issue – and probably the most promising – originates from the field of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Dr. Jean-François Côté, Director of the Cancer and Genetic Diseases Division in MontrealDr. Jean-François Côté Clinical Research Institute (IRCM), explores the molecular signals that allow cancer cells to seed and grow new tumors, and how to stop this spread. Along with his research team, he looks at signalling pathways that control cell migration. One of the team’s current projects focuses on breast cancer. Recently, Dr. Côté visited the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University and shared details of this research during a seminar titled “Unravelling the complexity of metastasis: Characterizing the roles of the receptor tyrosine kinase AXL in metastatic progression.”

What is the research agenda of Dr. Côté’s team? Statistics indicate that the majority of breast cancer deaths occur because of the manifestation of metastases. The metastatic process is complex: cancer cells detach from a primary tumour, enter nearby blood vessels, and migrate in the vascular system. Throughout this process, cancer cells exchange signals, and such signaling pathways drive tumor progression and metastasis after cancer cells reach and survive at secondary sites.

In a nutshell, AXL is a cell surface receptor. As Dr. Côté explains, the expression of AXL correlates with the appearance of metastases in several types of cancers, including breast cancer. AXL stimulates cell proliferation promoting cell survival, resistance, invasion, and metastasis. In other words, signals from AXL help malignant cells grow and spread to distant areas in the body.

A snapshot of AXL cooperating with HER2 in human breast cancer samples

A snapshot of AXL cooperating with HER2 in human breast cancer samples

The mechanism AXL uses to perform its pro-metastatic role is still not completely clear. To identify signaling networks controlled by AXL, Dr. Côté borrowed proteomics approaches – protein-based analysis methods that help estimate the relative and absolute amounts of thousands of proteins across diverse biological systems. Proteomic technologies are in high demand in cancer studies as they have the potential to lead to the discovery of new therapeutic targets and improve the precision of anti-cancer treatments.

What unites researchers in the cancer field all over the world is the understanding that a “one-size-fits-all” strategy for treating cancer no longer works. We live in the era of a tailor-made individualised approach. Searching for ways to personalize breast cancer treatment is considered the most promising way forward for leading cancer researchers. As researchers such as Dr. Côté and his team learn more about the molecular mechanisms controlling signaling by the receptor tyrosine kinase AXL, they are better able to move forward and identify some pharmacologic targets for treating breast cancer. The next major step will be designing novel anti-cancer therapies that will work better than conventional untargeted chemotherapy. “Old-school” chemotherapy kills without distinction. Targeted drugs attack breast cancer without harming benign cells.

Dr. Côté also employs in vivo approaches. In vivo (Latin for “within the living”) means that an investigator uses a whole, living organism in research. Regarding cancer studies, in vivo testing involves mouse models and human patient-derived xenografts. In the case of xenografts, human tumor cells are transplanted into a mouse. This allows the design of a model with the same biological parameters as an actual cancer patient. Obviously, this is a perfect way to observe the overall effect of an experiment using a living subject, while not harming people.

Much has been achieved in research and much more remains to be done, as Dr. Côté says. To date, findings indicate that the receptor tyrosine kinase AXL is a promising therapeutic target for breast cancer therapy. “Our results suggest that inhibition of AXL would be beneficial in limiting the spread of breast cancer,” argues Dr. Côté.

Natalia Mukhina –
Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate

 

Natalia Mukhina - Health Journalist

Natalia Mukhina, MA in Health Studies, is a health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate with a special focus on breast cancer. She is blogging on the up-to-date diagnostic and treatment opportunities, pharmaceutical developments, clinical trials, research methods, and medical advancements in breast cancer. Natalia participated in numerous breast cancer conferences including 18th Patient Advocate Program at 38th San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. She is a member of The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ).

 

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Finding cancer: Improving x-ray detector technology for earlier detection of breast cancer

posted by:
Neil W

Hello! I’m Tomi Nano, a PhD candidate in the department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work at Robarts Research Institute in Dr. Ian Cunningham’s lab on development of new x-ray detector designs and measurements of their performance.

Tomi Nano, a PhD candidate in the department of Medical Biophysics at Western UniversityThe Pamela Greenaway- Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Unit (TBCRU) Traineeship Program has supported my research in improving detector technology performance for earlier detection of breast cancer. Women who enrol in mammography screenings have up to 40% reduced risk of death from breast cancer, but since mammograms require exposure to radiation, detectors should produce high-quality images with the least amount of radiation so as to minimize the risk to patients. The aim of my research project is to develop an “ideal” x-ray detector which produces the highest-quality images with little radiation.

Improvements in image signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) are known to improve breast cancer detection. During my traineeship, our lab has developed a detector design that produces images with higher SNR of small features and fine detail which are important for early detection of breast cancer. Better visualization of fine detail in mammograms should help radiologists more accurately identify cancer. To further understand the clinical process of breast cancer screening, I have begun an observership at St. Joseph’s Hospital with Dr. Anat Kornecki. Our goal is to apply our new technological advancements to address the needs clinicians have for detecting breast cancer earlier.Tomi Nano

The support from TBCRU enabled me to share my discoveries with other scientists and clinicians at the 2017 Mammography Workshop and Imaging Winter School conference organized by the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists (COMP). In addition to discussing my translational breast cancer research with physicists, radiologists and technologists, this meeting provided an opportunity to establish future collaboration with leading Canadian scientists, such as Martin Yaffe from Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto and Jean Seely from the Department of Diagnostic Imaging at Ottawa Hospital.

Thank you TBCRU and BCSC for supporting translational breast cancer research!

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Breast cancer cell migration research

posted by:
Neil W

Hello, everyone! My name is Sami Khan and I’m an MSc candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. I work at London Cancer Regional Program under the supervision of Dr. Alison Allan. Our lab focuses on breast cancer metastasis: the process by which cancerous cells can leave the breast and establish tumours in other organs.

Sami Khan BCSC funded Breast Cancer ResearcherOne of the most common and deadly sites of breast cancer metastasis is the lung. For my project, I am currently investigating a family of proteins produced by the normal lung called selectins, and how they may play a role in helping breast cancer cells spread to and grow in the lung as metastatic tumours. To date, we have promising results that suggest selectins are involved in the migration (movement) of breast cancer cells and we are now investigating the mechanism by which this happens. Successful identification of a common mechanism by which the different selectins act will provide a new potential therapeutic target in limiting the spread of breast cancer to and from the lung.

This April, I had the opportunity to present my research at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. With over 20,000 attendees at the conference, it was an amazing opportunity to interact with scientists and clinicians from around the world, and learn about the breadth of research being conducted in the field. Returning to the lab with my newfound knowledge and expert advice, I am excited to see what we can accomplish next in our goal towards curing breast cancer.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

Sami Khan, MSc Candidate

Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

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Pizza for Research

posted by:
Neil W

Ethan Williams is six years old  and a breast cancer fundraising hero.The questions!  Oh, the many questions of a six year old.  As a breast cancer researcher with a young child I get the usual barrage of questions about life but with a few tricky additions like “why do people get cancer” and “what is cancer”.  For me, these are just questions to try understand my work, a fact that I am very thankful for. I often find myself having elaborate conversations with my son about my research.  His interest in research stems from the innocence of curiosity and is driven by the fascination of how the body works.  Children always have a unique perspective and it’s neat to see this applied to cancer research. He often comes up with ideas that he gets really excited about, such as “Mom, why don’t we train immune cells to attack the cancer cells like they attack bacteria” or the after-bedtime inquiry “what if we broke the parts of the cancer cells that let them move”?

After all the talks about my work and getting happily brought along to various walks-for-cancer he decided that he wanted to do his own fundraiser for breast cancer research. While a walk or run wasn’t an easy event to organize for his kindergarten class, he went for the next best thing: a pizza fundraiser. Let’s be honest, kids probably like pizza more than a 5km walk or run. I should also mention that he insisted on homemade pizza as “it’s healthier and that’s important”. When I asked him why this was important to him he told me that “when I first went on the breast cancer walk/run (the Breast Cancer Society of Canada Mother’s Day walk, a family tradition for 3 years now) I really liked it, I liked that people were raising money for breast cancer.  I wanted to do more to help so I raised money for breast cancer with my class”. He then continued on “because I know some people out there needed it and I really wanted to help people who have breast cancer and with more money we can do more research and know more about cancer and then we can fix it”.   He truly believes in the power of research and seems to really understand that through research we make new discoveries we can actually help people live better lives.

When the big day arrived, we baked a bunch of pizzas unusually early in the day and delivered them to some very eager kids. I was just hoping everyone would have fun and learn something, but when all was said and done, it turns out they also raised a lot more than we expected. If some kindergarten kids can bring together a fundraiser on a random Thursday, I think it proves any of us can do something towards an important cause that touches so many lives.
Karla Williams

Become a breast cancer fundraising hero like Ethan, make a donation to life-saving breast cancer research today: bcsc.ca/donate


Karla Williams
is a postdoctoral fellow who has published several papers on invadopodia in cancer cells.  Ethan Williams is six years old, he attends kindergarten, helps his mom (Karla) make pizza and is a breast cancer fundraising hero!

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Novel Molecular Imaging Technologies

posted by:
Neil W

Hello! My name is Katie Parkins and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work in the Imaging Research Laboratories at Robarts Research Institute under the co-supervision of Drs. Paula Foster and John Ronald.

Katie Parkins, PhD CandidateMy research involves using novel molecular imaging technologies to study concomitant tumour resistance (CTR): the ability of the primary tumour to inhibit the growth of secondary metastases. Tumor cell dormancy and recurrence are important clinical problems for breast cancer patients and their physicians as secondary metastases can develop many years after successful removal of the primary tumour and adjuvant therapy. We expect this research will produce important information about what influences metastatic tumour growth and possibly advance therapeutic development for breast cancer patients.

I have been fortunate to have many opportunities presenting my work at both international and regional conferences. My first author manuscript was published in the Nature Publishing Group journal, Scientific Reports, and recently recognized at the 2017 London Health Research Day as a recipient of the Lucille and Norton Wolf Publication Award. It’s very encouraging to see the interest in my work and the excitement for new results to come!

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

– Katie Parkins, PhD Candidate

Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

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Presenting, Learning, and Engaging

posted by:
Neil W

The value in attending a professional cancer research conference

Hello! My name is Ashkan Sadri and I’m a Masters candidate in Dr. Alison Allan’s lab in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University.

Ashkan Research Blog Since my last blog post, I’ve been fully immersed in the world of research (quite literally). Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the annual American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) conference held in Washington D.C. Being the world’s oldest and largest professional association related to cancer research, I surely had plenty of relevant information that I was able to digest, understand and utilize towards my own research.

As a refresher, my research focuses on assessing human breast cancer spread (metastasis) through a cancer stem cell (CSC) perspective. That being said, I am most interested in the potential of the bone and lung microenvironments to promote stem-like traits in human breast cancer cells. Having been granted the opportunity to present my research at the 2017 AACR conference, I successfully communicated our findings to a distinguished audience, all while receiving valuable information that I am incorporating into my research at this very moment. Further, it was remarkable to witness on an international scale the collaborative efforts that cancer researchers are putting forward to better understand, diagnose, and treat breast-specific and other cancers.

Although a bit overwhelming at times, this conference helped truly put into perspective how important our benchtop research is when it comes to understanding the complicated nature of breast cancer. I am extremely fortunate to have attended such a renowned meeting through the support of BCSC and the Allan lab. Departing for the conference as a rather naïve research student, I returned with a strong sense of enthusiasm about my research and a lengthy list of information/literature to follow-up on.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

– Ashkan Sadri

Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

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Chemotherapy sounds the alarm

posted by:
Neil W

Pat Murphy ResearcherGreetings! My name is Pat Murphy, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University in Dr. Shashi Gujar’s laboratory where we study cancer immunology and oncolytic (cancer-killing) viruses. I received funding support from the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and the QEII Foundation through the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute to study the immune response to chemotherapies.

Previous work has shown that some types of chemotherapies and oncolytic viruses enhance the ability of the immune system to detect and kill cancer cells. My work has used mass spectrometry to identify molecules called MHC-I peptides that are elicited by chemotherapies on tumors potentially alerting the immune system to their presence. I am now determining the effect of these MHC-I molecules on anti-tumor immunity to inform the design of new cancer vaccine strategies. These findings are exciting and I am grateful for the support of the Breast Cancer Society of Canada for this work.

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Shelley Warner: My cancer story, is not a death sentence

posted by:
Neil W

We would like you to meet Shelley Warner. Over the next month’s Shelley will be sharing a window in to her cancer story with us. As an introduction to her story, Shelley brings us up to her present days with a little bit of the beginnings to her cancer story.

Shelley Warner, my cancer story:
Breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence

In June of 2015 at the age of 46 I faced every woman’s worst fear and found a lump in my breast. At that point I had lived in the Mississauga area for 8 years and had always struggled to find a family doctor. I got up the next morning and called 9 doctors who all refused to see me. I explained my situation and still they refused. Call number 10 resulted in success. A doctor examined me and sent me for an ultra sound and mammogram. A week later the clinic called and requested I come back for a biopsy. The biopsy indeed confirmed I had breast cancer. The day following my diagnosis I met with my surgeon and was scheduled for surgery 10 days later where I had a lumpectomy and lymph nodes removed. The week following surgery I was sent for a CT and bone scan which is standard for all breast cancer patients. The following week I met with my oncologist for what I thought would be a routine appointment to obtain my schedule for chemotherapy. By this time my doctor had my scan results and he revealed to me that my cancer was Triple Negative metastatic breast cancer, very aggressive, and had already spread to my liver, lung and spine.

Shelley Warner, My cancer story

My oncologist proceeded to tell me that there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer. I remained very calm surprisingly and I looked up at my oncologist and said ok what are we going to do next? How are you going to treat me because I refuse to lie down and die! He told me we can do chemo but it will only shrink the cancer not cure me. I said surely shrinkage is better than letting it grow. Let’s start the chemo tomorrow I said! I looked my doctor straight in the face and I told him to please start telling me what he can do as opposed to what he cannot. With that he referred to his colleagues in the field and came back to me with a plan. I had 6 rounds of chemo every 3 weeks between September 2015 and January 2016. At the end of January, I had a CT scan and all the cancer was clear from my liver, lung and spine. My doctor said I was a miracle to be in remission. I continued to have scans every 3 months and each one clear until August 2016. I then began to suffer from a great deal of back pain in which a bone scan revealed the cancer was back in my bone. My lung and liver are still clear. I had just got to the point where I had a full head of hair again and back I went for 3 more rounds of chemo! I am now on an oral form of chemo called Xeloda. I’m only on my second cycle but so far so good.

Research is very important to me. Yes, without it I would not have the medication I am taking today to allow me a wonderful quality of life. However, my need for research goes beyond that. Metastatic breast cancer currently has no cure. Although I’m doing well on my current medication that could change at any time as cancer can become immune to the chemo. I am a huge advocate for research so that a cure can ultimately be found for this horrible disease. The current medication can buy me several years hopefully but a cure can save me all together.

My message is that metastatic breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence. This is a chronic disease and should be treated as such.  I am extremely active and live a full happy life! I work running my own successful recruitment firm. I travel and have been to Europe twice since my diagnosis and through my treatment. I live every day with the same zest and love of life as I always have.

Shelley Warner.

If you enjoyed this chapter in Shelley’s cancer story you can meet her in person.
Shelley will be one of the speakers at our Mississauga walk location on May 14. 2017.
Visit mothersdaywalk.ca for more information, to register to walk or sponsor someone today.

Shelly recently sat down to speak with Pauline Chan from CTV News to tell her story and why research matters to her. Watch the full story below or on the CTV website

Shelley Warner CTV News

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Photoacoustic Imaging Research

posted by:
Neil W

Hello, my name is Lawrence Yip, and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dr. Jeff Carson’s lab where I am developing a new imaging technology called Photoacoustic Imaging to help treat breast cancer.

Lawrence Yip Photoacoustic Imaging ResearchPhotoacoustic acoustic imaging uses short pulses of laser light to excite materials which cause them to generate their own sound waves that we can detect. This allows us to utilize the advantages of both ultrasound and optical (light) imaging. We are working on implementing photoacoustic imaging with the detection of tumour margins in breast-conserving surgery after the tumours are removed from the breast.

I’ve just about finished building the hardware for this imaging system, and this past year has been primarily spent troubleshooting various problems that came up, such as water getting into the system and electrical noise interfering with our results. I’m excited to start imaging objects later this month!

In December of 2016, I decided that I wanted to continue working on this project, and completed my reclassification to switch my MSc degree to PhD.  It was a daunting thought to commit another three years, but I’m also excited at the progress that this will allow me to achieve. I’ve also been encouraged by the interest I’ve seen in my work at several conferences these past few months, and I’ve also had the privilege of winning two poster presentation awards.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

-Lawrence Yip, PhD candidate

Editors Note:
Lawrence Yip, and many other breast cancer researchers across Canada are the reason why we walk every year at our annual Mother’s Day Walk, because research matters. Find our more about our annual fundraiser, sponsor someone or register to walk. Find out more at mothersdaywalk.ca

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BCSC thanks all our volunteers!

posted by:
Neil W

As we come to the end of the 2017, National Volunteer week we would to thank all our volunteers for helping make an important positive impact on life-saving breast cancer research. We could not do it without your help! Happy #NVW2017

Thank you Nat Volunteer week

In addition to all our great volunteers, we would like to send a congratulations to Kay-Ann Violette, Pat Brown, Tom Whitelaw, Barb McEwan, Valerie Marzola and Vanessa Martinez all recognized at the Ontario Volunteer Service Awards recently for their many years of volunteer service to BCSC. Thank you from everyone at BCSC.

BCSC thanks all our longest volunteers

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