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Leave or Remove? How imaging technologies help explore the impact of a primary tumor on metastatic growth

posted by:
Neil W

Katie Parkins, BCSC funded ResearcherWhy is it that for some breast cancer patients, a surgeon resects a tumor and they are cancer-free for 20+ years, whereas other patients have metastasis accelerate at an uncontrollable way after the tumor resection? This is a question that Katie Parkins, one of the trainees in Western University’s Cellular and Molecular Imaging program at Robarts Research Institute, strives to answer.

While doing her undergrad, Katie Parkins became interested in imaging the brain and understanding how to tie it back to cancer. “Some researchers are studying mechanisms of disease such as cancer, imaging and technology development, or molecular biology. I love that my work encompasses all of these. In this sense, Western University has a great research environment. Everyone is working together, which I find exciting. And there are also unique technologies that other universities – not only in Ontario but even in North America – do not have.”

Katie is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics as well as the collaborative Molecular Imaging program at Western University. She works under the co-supervision of Drs. Paula Foster and John Ronald. Katie is using imaging to explore the mechanisms that control metastatic growth rates. Specifically, the role of the primary tumour as both preclinical and clinical evidence suggests it can both suppress the growth of secondary tumours, a mechanism known as concomitant tumour resistance (CTR); as well as stimulate the growth of secondary tumours coined concomitant tumour enhancement (CTE).

Strikingly, some breast cancer patients are afraid to undergo surgery (or even a tumor biopsy!) because of a common belief: “Surgery could disrupt the tumour and spread the cells to other parts of the body.”

“This is not superstition,” Katie confirms. “There is clinical evidence of CTR when surgical removal of tumours resulted in a rapid metastatic growth. However, there is contrary evidence that the presence of a primary tumour can accelerate the metastatic outgrowth. Obviously, in the clinical setting, it is hard to study both mechanisms. I can’t imagine a surgeon who would say to the patient, ‘Well, let’s leave the cancer tumor inside your body and see what happens.’

“As a result, we have to try to make sense of some of the differences seen between two different groups of breast cancer patients: those who have their tumour resected and those who are seen as at less risk of spread and thus put on active surveillance. Under these conditions, the study I am currently involved with appears to be highly important.”

Katie Parkins Research PosterBasically, Katie and her research team facilitate brain metastasis in the lab animals and explore over time what is going on using advanced imaging technologies. “Regrettably, a lot of breast cancer patients are dying from brain metastasis, which can occur many years after successful removal of the primary tumour and adjuvant therapy. The goal of my work is to create a non-invasive imaging technique that will help understand the nature of that metastatic growth.”
As mentioned earlier, the two imaging technologies that Katie currently employs are Cellular MRI and Bioluminescence Imaging (BLI). The first visualizes iron-labeled cells in a living organism such as lab mice. Cellular MRI allows Katie to track cells at the single cell level. However, it cannot differentiate between dead and viable cells. BLI, on the other hand, measures cellular viability. When combined, Cellular MRI and BLI provide a more comprehensive understanding of metastatic breast cancer cell fate.

“Combining these tools gives us information we have never had before,” Katie says enthusiastically. “In regular MRI images, you can see just a big tumor in the brain that is made up of many different cells. In our study, we take the gene from the firefly and then engineer cancer cells that express this gene. In simple terms, we make our cancer cells glow like the firefly. The main advantage of using BLI is that we get signals only from live cancer cells. This is an advantage when studying treatment models where in the case of an effective drug, the signal will decrease due to cells dying off.”

The next step Katie undertakes in her research is to explore animals with a primary tumor and those without a primary tumor. “Information that we are getting by using the advanced imaging technologies in animals would be very translational. Currently, my primary research objective is to understand the mechanisms by which the primary tumour controls the growth of secondary tumours. Ultimately, this may lead to novel therapies for metastatic breast cancer patients.”

Katie Parkins, BCSC funded ResearcherKatie recently presented her work at the Canadian Cancer Research Conference in Vancouver. “I not only had the opportunity to discuss my latest findings with other cancer researchers but also metastatic breast cancer patients that are part of the Canadian Patient Involvement program. Seeing the patients’ interest in my work is very encouraging. It gives me inspiration and passion to go further and overcome challenges every researcher faces in their work.”


Support researchers like Katie Parkins and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

Katie Parkins’s story was transcribed from interviews conducted by BCSC volunteer Natalia Mukhina – Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate

Natalia Mukhina - Health JournalistNatalia 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.

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Creating better drugs to treat breast cancer

posted by:
Neil W

Alexandra Hauser-KawaguchAlexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi, a PhD candidate in Dr. Len Luyt’s lab at the London Health Science Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program, works to help breast cancer patients fight the disease, but does so from her chemistry lab.

“The drug development process that we focus on in our lab is on basic science. We carry out the first steps in the discovery of new anti-cancer drugs. As a chemist, I synthesize novel compounds, and then, I work with biologists, who screen them in cells. If it looks successful, we move onto animal models. But quite often, the outcome leads me to having to redesign and redeveloping the compounds. This is how a successful drug molecule is discovered.”

What Alexandra studies specifically has a long and complicated name – Receptor for hyaluronan mediated motility (RHAMM). “Basically, any receptor is a protein molecule that can react to chemical signals from outside the cell. When such signals arrive, and bind to the receptor, it responds in a certain way. RHAMM reacts specifically to hyaluronan (HA) signals. In breast cancer cells, their interaction increases.”

What follows is a domino effect. “The RHAMM-HA interaction activates downstream signaling pathways. Breast cancer cells, especially those of an aggressive nature, begin to rapidly exchange signals. This process, in turn, activates genes responsible for spreading the cancer to other body parts, which means that it unfortunately becomes metastatic, and this often means that it is ‘incurable’. Yet, the good news is that we can prevent this scenario if we don’t let RHAMM and HA interact.”

For a few years, Alexandra has been focused on discovering new therapeutic agents – drugs – that could block the interaction between RHAMM and HA. “We have developed peptides that act as RHAMM mimics. Proteins and peptides are very similar in structure, but peptides are smaller. RHAMM mimics bind strongly with HA and prevent it from interacting with the real RHAMM. Our studies show that these peptides can block inflammation associated with breast cancer, as well as stop metastasis from occurring.”

Recently, Alexandra’s team has created a set of such peptides and conducted preclinical evaluation in mice. “Preliminary results demonstrated that our lead compound may be successful, and it will be further investigated as a prototype drug molecule for treating RHAMM-related breast cancer.”

“In a perfect world, we hope to one day test our therapeutic agent in patients. Unfortunately, it takes years and requires funding to reach that point. Even preclinical studies are quite expensive. In our lab, we have to be very rigorous with everything leading up to the preclinical stage before we are confident enough to move forward to a clinical trial.”

Alexandra Hauser-KawaguchGoing further in describing the process of drug development, Alexandra suggests that the prospective drug would be injectable, like a vaccine. In addition, the team is thinking of the possibility for the drug to be taken orally: “We are working on designing our compounds in such a way that one day it could end up being a pill. No blood, no needles – it would be much more convenient for patients.”

In Alexandra’s opinion, the most exciting part of research is that it is all about discovering things. However, there is also a negative side. “Quite often experiments fail. You spend so long trying to solve a problem, but it often doesn’t work out like you expected. Such moments can be a bit heartbreaking and discouraging. But when something does work, it is extremely rewarding, and it reminds me why I do this.”

After graduating from University of Toronto, she chose Western University in London for her doctorate because of its reputation in health research, imaging and radiopharmaceuticals. Alexandra was actually first involved in the development of imaging agents. This is directly related to PET (positron emission tomography) or SPECT (single-photon emission computerized tomography) scan technologies. These nuclear imaging tests use very small doses of radioactive compounds that are injected into patients, which helps visualize the cancer tumor on the scan.

“Starting with work in imaging/diagnostics, I ended up working on drug molecules for therapeutic applications in cancer. I do not believe in a magical cure for everything. Each type of cancer is very different, and each patient is very different. But I definitely think it is possible to develop drugs that will treat specific types of breast cancers in the future.”

Support researchers like Alexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

 

Alexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi’s story was transcribed from interviews conducted by BCSC volunteer Natalia Mukhina – Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate

Natalia Mukhina - Health JournalistNatalia 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.

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Dr. Alison Allan: “Time is the biggest challenge in breast cancer research”

posted by:
Neil W

Dr. Alison AllanDr. Alison Allan’s research lab is on the 4th floor of the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). The lab is a realm of true science where Dr. Allan investigates the process of metastasis, which occurs when cancer cells spread from the primary tumor to other parts of the body. Breast cancer is a special focus of Dr. Allan’s research program.

But when she goes down two floors, there is a cancer care facility full of patients who are undergoing cancer treatment. These are real patients in real clinical areas, and Dr. Allan finds the setting of her workplace inspiring, where cancer research and clinical care take place together.

“When I came to LHSC to do my post-doc, I began to work with Dr. Ann Chambers, who is an international expert in metastasis and breast cancer specifically. Our Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, which was founded in partnership with the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, provides an environment where researchers can interact with physicians and patients. I have exposure to patients every day. That is what motivated me to stay in breast cancer research and still motivates me every day,” says Dr. Allan.

Although the survival rate of breast cancer is improving, the disease is still the leading cause of cancer death among women worldwide. Dr. Allan explains that metastasis is the most critical part of cancer because most patients do not die of their primary tumor. They usually die of metastatic disease.

“Unfortunately, even if breast cancer has been diagnosed in the early stage and the patient has successfully undergone surgery and other treatments, the cancer cells may escape from the primary tumor and move into the bloodstream. They can circulate throughout the body and invade distant organs like the lungs, the liver, the bones and others. This is what kills 80% of cancer patients.”

The lung is one of the organs to which breast cancer, especially the most aggressive types like triple-negative and HER2-positive, tends to spread. Why does this happen? Based on Dr. Allan’s team findings, some aggressive breast cancer cells express a protein called CD44 on their cell surface. These cells are particularly prone to travel through the bloodstream, reach the lung, interact with lung-specific proteins and grow in the lung, forming new tumors.

CD44+ breast cancer cells and those specific proteins produced by the lung itself work together like hooks that cling to each other. What if you break their interaction? “We suggest that in this case we can reduce metastatic activity. In our lab, we have already identified five specific lung-derived proteins that interact directly with CD44+ breast cancer cells. We have studied the ways to disrupt their interactions and identified a set of targets that likely can block those five specific lung proteins. This approach, I believe, will help us develop new therapies for treating lung metastasis of breast cancer,” says Dr. Allan.

Dr. Allan Lab Team Recently, Dr. Allan and her team have received funding to start the pre-clinical drug development process. “We are working with Dr. Raimar Löbenberg at the Drug Development and Innovation Centre at the University of Alberta. He is a pharmacist with experience in producing inhalable drugs like those used to treat asthma and other respiratory diseases. He will be packaging the targets that we identified into this form, and then we will be testing how the inhaled drug delivery approach works. If it does work, this could lead to an effective and easy-to-use drug for reducing breast cancer metastasis in the future.”

How long will it take to finally obtain a working medication? “If everything goes perfectly, 8-10 years. It’s still long time. We are looking at how to treat the metastasis successfully, but also assessing the preventative capacity of our targets. We have very specific targets and deliver them specifically to the lung. I hope that it will result in more effectiveness and much less toxicity. The lower the toxicity, the more hope to use our future drug to prevent breast cancer metastasis in the lung, not only to treat it.”

Another direction of Dr. Allan’s research is developing blood-based biomarkers that will help in the early detection of metastasis and the assessment of how anti-cancer treatments work in patients with metastatic disease. “It looks like a regular blood test. Just 10 ml of blood. We are looking at viable tumor cells that are floating in the bloodstream. This is a version of the liquid biopsy technology, which has showed impressive results recently. Yet, we can analyze the whole cancer cells while the traditional liquid biopsy is looking for pieces of DNA from tumor cells. We have more prognostic and predictive options because we can recover the cancer cells and study them in the lab to figure whether they are more aggressive or whether they have changed their characteristics. It tells us a bit more about the disease in real time.”

“Time is the biggest challenge in breast cancer research,” argues Dr. Allan. “Every morning, I walk in the LHSC building and see cancer patients. Sometimes I see women my age with kids, and I feel how long things take in science. I feel urgency. I want things to go faster so that our work will be able to benefit more patients.”

Translational research – with its focus on the rapid movement of findings from the lab to patients – is a good option to accelerate progress, Dr. Allan believes. “This approach is widely known as ‘from bench to bedside’, but here in London we also like to think about the ‘bedside to bench’ direction. We talk a lot with clinical colleagues and listen to the problems they see in clinics with their patients. We then take their concerns and ideas back to the lab and see what we can do. It is a circular process rather than a directional one. It is a dialogue.”

Dr. Allan welcomes grad students in her research program. “We are training the next generation of breast cancer researchers in the framework of having the patients in the centre of the research. We may not be able to cure metastatic breast cancer, but we can make it a chronic disease. We can give patients a long, healthy, and productive life. Instead of dying young of breast cancer, patients will live a long and happy life surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Why not? I think this is a very realistic goal.”

Support researchers like Dr. Alison Allan and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

 

Dr. Alison Allan’s story was transcribed from interviews conducted by BCSC volunteer
Natalia Mukhina – Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate

Natalia Mukhina - Health JournalistNatalia 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.

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Announcing The 2017 Dress for the Cause Top Fundraiser

posted by:
Neil W

Westside Secondary School, is the top fundraiser for three consecutive years!

Westside Secondary School, is the top fundraiser for three consecutive years!

The Breast Cancer Society of Canada (BCSC) is pleased to announce Westside Secondary School, in Orangeville, Ontario is the top fundraiser for the 2017 Dress for the Cause.

Dress for the Cause, supporting Breast Cancer Awareness month, has raised more than $8.8 Million for Canadian breast cancer research. From across Canada, companies, schools and organizations participate in Dress for the Cause by hosting local, individual fundraising events.

The Westside Secondary School community have personally experienced the impact of breast cancer and since 2004 the students and faculty rally support for the cause by hosting “Pink Day.” Pink Day begins with a pancake breakfast and ends with a rousing assembly involving teachers and students facing off in various competitions – tug-of-war, bottle-toss, etc. Several students and staff shave their heads and donate their hair to make wigs for cancer patients.

Westside Secondary School raised $20,410 during this year’s Pink Day, and is Canada’s top Dress for the Cause fundraiser for the third year in a row! This brings the school’s cumulative donation total to more than $135.000!

In honour of Westside’s accomplishment, The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will make a $5,000 donation on behalf of the School to The Headwaters Health Care Centre – a local cancer treatment centre.

“The dedication of Westside Secondary School Students, Faculty and Administration to help find a cure for breast cancer is truly inspirational. Not only does Westside host an amazing ‘Pink Day’ fundraiser, they also enlist the support of their entire community. We are grateful to everyone who donated their time and money to Westside. Thank you for your spirit and continued support of our mission to end breast cancer,” said Kimberly Carson, CEO of BCSC

“It’s just an incredible moment, an incredible occasion,” said Christine Kirkland, Westside Secondary School teacher and the annual event’s longtime coordinator. “To be able to sit here right now and say that we’ve successfully raised over $20,000 is just so surreal. It’s completely overwhelming.”

Thanks to the generous support of donors like Westside, BCSC continues to fund patient-focused research –encouraging collaboration among physicians and researchers committed to improving diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer patients. Only through research will we find a cure.

To learn more about Dress for the Cause please visit www.DressfortheCause.ca

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I know firsthand how important research is – Ruth Ackerman

posted by:
Neil W

Ruth Ackerman’s story inspires the kind of work the Breast Cancer Society is funding. We hope you will also find inspiration in her story and take part in Giving Tuesday on this November 28th, by giving to life-saving breast cancer research, because Research Matters

Ruth Ackerman became a pharmacist because she always was good at chemistry and math and the curriculum looked interesting. “I have never dreamt of inventing any magical pill,” she says smiling. “But my education helped me enormously in my cancer journey. As both a pharmacist and cancer survivor, I know firsthand how important research is.”

“We need research to gain evidence that something works. Yet, it is equally important to make sure that something does not work in the way we hoped it had to.” Let’s listen to the voice of Ruth, a 17+ year survivor of triple-negative breast cancer, and take part in Giving Tuesday. Because research matters.

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

It all began in 1999, when I asked my family physician if I could go on birth control pills. “You are in your 40s now, and I want you to have a mammogram before you start taking the pills,” she answered. The mammogram was fine. After just a month, however, I found a lump in my breast. “That’s weird,” I thought, but I was not worried much as I had just had a clear mammogram. But when I found a lump in my armpit a couple of months later, I was quickly in the surgeon’s office to have a biopsy.

He did a fine needle aspiration biopsy, showing cancer cells. Because the tumor was large – 4.5 cm –  I underwent a full mastectomy. I had 20 lymph nodes removed as well, and 17 of them had cancer cells. Shortly after that, I was given a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma, stage III. The pathology report showed that the tumor was estrogen-receptor-negative, so I had no hopes for hormonal therapy. My treatment plan included 6 months of chemotherapy and then 7 weeks of radiation. My breast cancer was very aggressive, and they treated it aggressively.

Then and now Ruth had triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) – one of the most dangerous types of the disease, which is negative for estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 receptors. But at that time Ruth did not know yet that her disease is called TNBC. The HER2 testing was not used as routinely then as it is currently. Ruth’s test for HER2 was performed in 2004, and result came back negative. Patients now in the same situation often start their treatment with chemo before having surgery. It has been proven that such a regime shows better results in treating TNBC. Research matters. 

Because my tumor was so aggressive, I was referred to a researcher who explored high-dose chemotherapy with stem cells transplant in breast cancer. At the time, this regimen was showing good results in treating high-risk breast cancer; however, it was a controversial and undeniably toxic treatment modality.

While I was eligible to have the treatment, I was very worried about it. From a pharmacist standpoint, it seemed right, but I did a lot of research and realized that I could die from the treatment itself. And frankly, after 2 rounds of chemotherapy, I didn’t know how I would continue to work at my job if I went through with even more toxic treatment. After much thought, I said, “No, I want to do regular chemo.” Researchers later concluded that stem cell methods work well for blood tumors, but not for solid tumors like breast cancer. The high-dose approach to treating breast cancer was debunked.

Obviously, any chemotherapy may cause various side effects. I remember my physician telling me that he was going to drop my chemo dose to 75% as I had experienced protracted febrile neutropenia and had been hospitalized. After he saw the look on my face, he said, “I don’t want to kill you, Ruth. What I am trying to do here is to cure you.” I think that was the first time he said “cure”. It sounded extremely encouraging.

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

I am aware of how insidious cancer is. When I was diagnosed with cancer a second time, part of me was like “I know this.” It occurred in the same area which had been irradiated in 2000 and getting a proper biopsy proved difficult. After 4 months and 2 biopsies, I was told my new tumor was malignant on Christmas Eve. It was hard. My reaction was, “Ok, so then get it the hell out of me!” The tumour was completely excised 3.5 long months later in 2016, and I hope to never have to face cancer again.

Then and now Breast cancer patients benefit today from more accurate strategies that have been put into clinical practice in recent years. One of them is new radiation regimens that use improved equipment. They cause fewer complications. A lot has been done as well to introduce such methods as trucut biopsy, MRI, PET-CT scan, HER2 routine testing, personalized targeted treatment, etc. Research matters.

What is one of the worst things about having breast cancer in your early 40s, which is when my cancer story happened? You feel pretty strong. You rely on your body and you feel perfectly fine. Breast cancer is tricky because there are no symptoms in the early stages. When you have been told you have “that thing” in your breast it is scary. It shakes your self-confidence. It changes a lot around you.

I like helping people and also value the help of others. I used the support of breast cancer support groups throughout treatment and beyond.  There was a diverse group of many women. Some of them had been 20 years cancer-free. Some had been newly diagnosed or were currently in treatment. But they all were so warmly inviting and supportive. They inspired me to fight and gave me strength and support.

Later, as a Peer Support Volunteer with the Canadian Cancer Society, I provided telephone support to those who had breast cancer. During our conversations I was someone who had “been there” and gone through what they were facing. It is such a wonderful feeling to talk to somebody who is so scared and give them some hope! We would chat about everything. Strikingly, the number one thing we always started with was their question “What did I do to cause this?”  The women said, “I had children, I breastfed them, I don’t smoke, I exercise, and here I have breast cancer. Why?”

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

Researchers know a lot about what may cause breast cancer; however, there is still much that is unknown. I have a history of breast cancer in my family. My two aunts and grand-aunt had breast cancer, and one of my aunts was diagnosed at 42 (the same age I was at diagnosis) and died at 43. It happened very quickly. My grandfather had male breast cancer, which is very rare! My genetic tests showed a negative result though. Subsequently, due to the most recent cancer I had in 2016, I was again referred to do genetic testing and once again it came back negative. Whatever I had, it is not genetic. Although my second cancer was likely caused by the radiation treatments I received in 2000, my first one seemed to be just random. This is what we know now. I believe we are always learning more about the cause of breast cancer since research is constantly evolving.

Then and now In the 1990s, achievements in genetics opened up the prospect for genetic testing to recognize mutations in BRAC genes associated with breast cancer. Ruth underwent her first BRAC test in the early 2000s. In 2016, her geneticist suggested that Ruth redo it because the BRAC test used in 2000 gave many false negatives. Since then, the technology has rapidly improved, and patients can now do more precise genetic testing. Because research matters.

As a pharmacist, I truly believe in research. Research is expensive because researchers must make sure that their research is accurate and always have to check and double-check the data. They need to have a significant cohort of patients to make sure that what they are researching they are getting right. I’ve been disease-free for more than 17 years. Research is a key for cancer patients because it gives them hope.

“Research matters because life is priceless.”
– Ruth Ackerman

Your donation to The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will help fund breast cancer research. Give today, help save lives by supporting life-saving breast cancer research because, Research Matters. Prefer to give using your phone? Text GIVE to 41010 to donate $5 

Ruth’s story was transcribed from interviews conducted by BCSC volunteer
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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Kathy Steffan – What’s My Breast Cancer Story?

posted by:
Neil W

Kathy Steefan - BCSC

Throughout my professional career, I have been involved with many non-profilt organizations, both as a board member and as an auditor/advisor. I feel that this is my most significant board involvement because of my personal connection with breast cancer. It involves my own baby girl, Nicole. Actually, she hasn’t been a baby for a long time, except to me.

Nicole’s story starts in 2006, at age 22, when she found a painful lump on her breast. Because she was young, healthy and active, she thought it meant nothing. Over the next 2 years the pain slowly got worse, and several doctors dismissed the lump as a benign cyst, because, of course, she was too young to have cancer. Finally, she had an ultrasound in Toronto and was eventually diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. Nicole started treatment at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto with a plan that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Within 7 months of the initial diagnosis Nicole received a clean bill of health. Her annual check-ups were good news for the following seven years.

In early 2015,  Nicole was 31 years old and living in Calgary,  pursuing a successful career in Commercial Real Estate. That Spring, she started to feel pain and discomfort in one of her ribs after any physical activity. All of her doctors, including her original oncologist in Toronto, said it was a broken rib that would need time to heal. When the pain persisted into the Fall, a doctor in Calgary ordered a CT scan. This time, Nicole had stage IV metastatic breast cancer, and it was in her lungs and her bones–which had led to her broken rib.

Nicole on her 33rd Birthday in July 2017 with her fabulous puppy Bobby.

Nicole on her 33rd Birthday in July 2017.

We had expected that she would have to endure chemo, radiation and much more. However, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that because Nicole’s breast cancer is 99% estrogen, the treatment would be three weeks of radiation, followed by ongoing hormone treatment and ovarian suppression. Three months later, all of the tumours were reduced significantly and we continued to hope.

It is now September 2017 and we all feel very fortunate that the treatment is still working. In Nicole’s case, metastatic breast cancer has become a chronic disease that can be treated, which is a huge contrast to what it was in the past. And if the current treatment becomes less effective, there are lots of options.

Notably, the treatment that Nicole is now receiving did not exist in 2009. Her outcomes would have been very different. The advancements in treatment in even the last five to 10 years have been incredible. This is the core of the reason that I am involved in the Breast Cancer Society of Canada (BCSC). Because I am convinced that the research focus and mandate of the (BCSC) will make a difference. I feel confident that my involvement will actually make a difference.

I am encouraged and excited about the hope that exists, and look forward to the future when we finally put a stop to this disease.

Like Kathy Steffan start making a difference today give to life-saving breast research. Learn more about ways you can give at bcsc.ca/donate.

 

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Determining how proteins interact with breast cancer cells

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. In Dr. Alison Allan’s laboratory at the London Regional Cancer Program, we study proteins that may be involved in the preferential metastasis (or spread) of breast cancer to the lung and the potential of these proteins to be used as targets for novel breast cancer therapies.

Sami Khan - Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) scholarship recipienI am specifically interested in a family of proteins called selectins, which are normally found in the lung. Together with fellow lab members, we have demonstrated that the selectins enhance the migration or movement of breast cancer cells towards the lung. We are now in the process of determining the mechanism by which selectins interact with breast cancer cells and exert their function. Learning this will better enable us to develop strategies that can limit the spread of breast cancer cells to the lung and ultimately limit lung metastasis. These translatable findings could then be used clinically to improve breast cancer patient outcomes.

Without the funding support from the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, our research would not have been possible. As I finish up my MSc thesis, I am thankful for all the opportunities I was afforded and strongly believe that continued support from BCSC and its generous donors to researchers and trainees will lead to a breakthrough in breast cancer therapy one day soon.

Sami Khan, MSc Candidate

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

Support researchers like Sami and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

 

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Investigating early events in estrogen signaling

posted by:
Neil W

Hi, my name is Bart Kolendowski and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at Western University. I currently work at the London Regional Cancer Program in Dr. Joe Torchia’s lab researching the role of the estrogen receptor in breast cancer.

The estrogen receptor is often a therapeutic target in a subset of breast cancers. My work has focused on investigating early events in estrogen signaling to better understand how therapies work and, more importantly, why they sometimes fail.

Bart-Kolendowski - BCSC - Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) scholarship recipientDuring my tenure as a Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) scholarship recipient, I have discovered previously unknown mechanisms that drive estrogen-dependent breast cancer. Importantly, these discoveries have led to the identification of new targets that may prove to be of therapeutic value for patients suffering from breast cancer.

I have been invited to present this work at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research National Student Research Competition held at the University of Winnipeg as well as the prestigious Keystone Symposia on Nuclear Receptors held in Snowbird, Utah.

Earlier this year, we submitted a manuscript based on my findings to a high-impact academic journal for publication. I am happy to announce that we are currently in the process of completing revisions and anticipate that the work will be published in the upcoming months!

None of this would have been possible without the continued support of the TBCRU and the Breast Cancer Society of Canada.

Thank you!

Support researchers like Bart and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

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What being a breast cancer researcher has taught me.

posted by:
Neil W

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, just coming to the conclusion of my thesis research.

When I engage in casual conversation, the topic of graduate school and breast cancer research often arise. By far, the most common question I’m asked is: “Does a cure exist?” And to that, it’s hard to give a simple answer.

Ashkan Sadri, BCSC ResearcherWhat is difficult to communicate to those outside of the cancer research field is that, due to the complexity of cancer, it is unlikely a single cure exists. Over the past two years, the basis of my research has been to investigate whether the factors produced by different organs in the body such as bones and the lungs can promote a rare, stem-like population of breast cancer cells with heightened capacity to form metastatic tumors in these organs. Our research findings turned out to challenge our predictions, providing an important means for thinking outside of the box. Not only were the stem-like traits of breast cancer cells not promoted when exposed to the lung microenvironment, they were actually reduced. We have gone on to identify a novel subpopulation of breast cancer cells that may potentially be involved in metastasis to the lung, using pathways that are distinct from the original cancer stem cell model. Thus, when asked, about a “cure to cancer”, it’s important to consider the complex nature of cancer biology and the many unknowns that exist, emphasizing the need for valuable research to be conducted.

When confronted with a treatment, breast cancer cells often find alternative means to progress along their path. Cancer treatments are effective in blocking key pathways, but alternative routes exist that the cancer cells can utilize. This is why supporting breast cancer research is vital. Learning about different mechanisms that drive tumour development are necessary to finally get breast cancer under control. By supporting breast cancer research, researchers are able to make a global impact when it comes to gaining ground on cancer.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

– Ashkan Sadri

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

Support researchers like Ashkan and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate

 

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Introducing New Breast Cancer Research Trainee Scholarships in London

posted by:
Neil W

We are pleased to announce 13 new graduate student scholarships at Western University for the 2017-2018 academic year.  These awards are supported by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada’s very generous commitment to the Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP).

Translational research unit student researchers

Trainees compete annually for these awards.  Their applications are assessed on the scientific quality of their project, their academic record, the relevance of the project to translational breast cancer research and the strength of their mentor.  This year, seven of the trainees are PhD students, five are MSc students and one is enrolled in the joint PhD-MCISc (CAMPEP) (Commission on the Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs) Accredited Program, which prepares trainees to become medical physicists.

These students are enrolled in six departments Western University (Anatomy & Cell Biology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, Medical Biophysics, and Pathology & Laboratory Medicine).  They are working in Lawson Health Research Institute laboratories  at LRCP, St. Joseph’s Health Care London, as well as in laboratories at Western University.

Their research projects cover a wide range of important breast cancer research, ranging from basic biology of breast cancer cells to clinical studies, and all of their research is focused on improving care for breast cancer patients.  You can learn more about our trainees and details of their projects at this link.   Over the coming year, the students will provide updates on their research progress here on the BCSC research blog.

Congratulations to our trainees – and thank you to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and its supporters!

Ann Chambers, PhD

Director of the Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, funded by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada

Support life-saving breast cancer research

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