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Archive for the ‘Researcher’s Blog’ Category

Alyssa, a reason to give!

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Alyssa Vito Giving Tuesday Story

On November 29th, The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will partner with the Giving Tuesday Canada initiative to encourage Canadians across the country to fund life-saving breast cancer research.

Alyssa Vito is a breast cancer survivor, whose journey led her to cancer research. Alyssa’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 November 29th, by giving to help those in need!

Alyssa’s Story

Six-time Ironman World champion Mark Allen once said, “Until you face your fears, you don’t move to the other side, where you find the power.” As someone who has been an athlete my entire life, I relate deeply to this quote. Overcoming fear is a crucial step to any athletic success. But athleticism aside, the cancer survivor inside me relates to this even deeper. Because there can be nothing scarier to an athlete than your body being devoured by cancer. And it’s only when you step up and face that fear head on that you can move to the other side and find a power so strong you never even knew it existed.

After finishing my B.Sc. and moving back to Toronto I was in top physical form. I had just finished rowing four years on a division one rowing team in the USA and was in the best shape of my life. I ran. I cycled. I worked out every day. Twice a day. I felt invincible. But one night when I was going to bed, I found a lump in my breast. And no matter how many people told me that I was “too young to have breast cancer”, on July 23rd, 2011,  I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in the right breast.

With no family history and essentially no risk factors, it was a shocking diagnosis to anyone and everyone who heard it. But family history and risk factors aside, what was even more shocking was how healthy I was. I looked like someone capable of running a marathon… and I was.

I was twenty-three years old, working in the medical field and aspiring to become an oncologist. I had been a competitive athlete my entire life and lived as healthy and active as I could. I spent years volunteering in the cancer centre at Credit Valley Hospital and imagined one day transitioning from volunteer to doctor, but never considered the possibility that I could wind up a patient there myself.

Pathology showed that my tumour was stage two, triple negative and as such I was given an aggressive treatment regimen. I underwent surgery, chemo and radiation therapy and have now been in remission for four years and eight months.

After finishing treatment, I decided to go back to school and work in the field of cancer research. I wanted to see firsthand what was being done to prevent what I had gone through, from happening to someone else like me. I went to McMaster University and did my M.Sc. degree in chemical biology. My thesis sought to develop and evaluate molecular imaging probes for breast cancer detection. While I cannot say that I developed anything in my time there that is actually being used in the clinic today, I can say that we have made progress. We are making progress. One small step at a time.

This year I returned to McMaster to pursue my PhD, again in the field of cancer research. My PhD thesis is focused on an exciting new field, exploring immunotherapies for breast cancer treatment. These immunotherapies offer a way to use a patient’s own immune system to kill the malignant cells within them.

The field of oncology research is ever evolving. Ever changing. Ever growing. And it is no easy feat. As someone who works in this field, I can tell you that for every 100 experiments and hypotheses done in the lab, maybe 10 work. It is a constant battle to tackle such a devastating disease and work towards some way of better detecting it, fighting it, treating it.

Breast cancer mortality rates have decreased by 44% since the peak in 1986. This decrease is directly linked to research efforts like those I just mentioned. And even with that vast decrease, we still have a long way to go. This is precisely why organizations like the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and days like Giving Tuesday are so incredibly important. Though you may have heard it over and over again, I want to tell you that every dollar counts. Research works. I am living proof of this. But… research is expensive. The process of taking an idea, curating it, funding it and taking it from bench-to-bedside is no cheap or easy feat. No matter what your reason is for being connected to the cancer community, you need to remember that every dollar you donate puts us one step closer to a life in which no person fears cancer.

I never thought I would get into research. I never thought I would get breast cancer. Often in life, things happen that we weren’t expecting. It disrupts our daily flow and throws a fork into the straight road we thought we were traveling. But at the end of the day, it’s these divergent paths that guide us to new, typically better outcomes. It is these disruptions that carve out our lives. Our stories. It is these exact disruptions that have made me a wife, a mother, a survivor, a researcher and an overall better person… and I wouldn’t change one inch of it given the chance.

Your donation to The Breast Cancer Society of Canada will help fund breast cancer research. Give today and help save lives.


Where are they now? Former TBCRU Trainee Donna Murrell

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We thought it would be interesting to track the career development of trainees previously supported by studentships from Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) in London.Donna Murrell, PhD 

Hello!  My name is Donna Murrell and I was supported by a TBCRU studentship, funded by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, from 2012-2014. I then successfully competed for a national Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Fellowship for 2014-2016.  You may have read some of my previous blog entries in 2014 and 2015.  I studied in Dr. Paula Foster’s lab at Robarts Research Institute and I recently earned my PhD in Medical Biophysics and Molecular Imaging from Western University.  My research project used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the development of breast cancer brain metastasis and dormant cancer cells to better understand how they are affected by radiation therapy.

My career goal is to become a clinical medical physicist and help to treat people who have cancer using radiation therapy.  To prepare for this career, I completed a CAMPEP-accredited (Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs) course-based Masters Degree concurrently with my PhD.  I am now working as a Physics Resident at the London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP) and will complete two years of clinical training in radiation oncology physics.  I am really enjoying residency and am learning a lot very quickly!
Thank you to BCSC for your support of the TBCRU program and helping me to launch my career.

Donna Murrell, PhD –  (pictured above in a radiation treatment room at the LRCP, with a linear accelerator that is used to deliver radiation treatment.)


The Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit in London announces 13 scholarship awards for 2016-2017

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We’re pleased to announce 13 new graduate student scholarships at Western University for the 2016-2017 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).

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.  Seven PhD students and six MSc students were selected for awards this year.

These students are enrolled in six departments or programs at Western (Anatomy & Cell Biology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering Program, Chemistry, Medical Biophysics, and Pathology & Laboratory Medicine).  One of our trainees is jointly enrolled in the PhD Medical Biophysics/Clinical MSc CAMPEP (Commission on the Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs) Accredited Program, which prepares trainees to become medical physicists.  The trainees are working in research laboratories at LRCP, St. Joseph’s Health Care London and Western.

Their research projects cover a wide range of research areas, including the metastatic spread of breast cancer, the role of immune cells in breast cancer progression, improved imaging for early detection, new treatments and much more.  You can learn more about our trainees at the TBCRU website:

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

An Invasive Tumour Cell Subpopulation as a Therapeutic Target in Breast Cancer

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My name is Tahereh Vakili (pictured right) and I’m
a Master’s Tahereh's photo BCSC Blogsstudent in the Department of Biochemistry a Western University. I work under the supervision of Dr. Eva Turley (pictured left), whose lab is located at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program. Dr. Turley’s lab is interested in the intricacies of the tumor microenvironment and particularly the role of hyaluronan (a molecule within the skin and other tissues) and its receptors RHAMM and CD44 in invasion and metastasis.

Breast tumors often display remarkable diversity of cells within. Some tumor cells may survive chemotherapy and possibly spread to form new tumors, which becomes a major impediment in treatment. My project focuses on a newly identified type of diversity in human breast cancer cell models based on hyaluronan binding. I investigate the sensitivity of these tumor cell subtypes to clinically routine chemotherapeutic regiments. To date, I’ve found that a high-binding subset is more chemoresistant than the low-binding cells. The findings of the study may be beneficial for designing new therapies that prevent tumor recurrence and prolong patient survival.

This past year has been a unique one for me. I enjoyed every single moment of being a new mom. Interestingly, my scientist brain saw raising a baby similar to conducting research, as I read literature on parenting and investigated a series of concepts with my baby. Now he has new learning opportunities spending time with children his age, and I am very excited to be return to the world of academic science.

Thank you to the BCSC for your trainee support!
– Tahereh Vakili, MSc Candidate
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre


Could blocking certain proteins prevent lung metastasis of breast cancer?

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Hello everyone! My name is Sami Khankhan
and I’m an MSc candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. I work under the supervision of Dr. Alison Allan at London Regional Cancer Program.

The main focus of our lab is breast cancer metastasis, the process by which cancerous cells can leave the breast and establish tumours in other organs. Metastasis accounts for over 90 per cent of all breast cancer-related deaths by directly impairing function of organs such as the lungs. Over a century ago, Dr. Stephen Paget postulated that like a plant seed which requires rich, nutritious soil to grow, breast cancer cells need specific factors present within an organ to be able to survive and develop into a tumour.

My work over the past year has involved researching E- and P-selectin, two proteins present in the lung that appear to be involved in attracting breast cancer cells to this organ. With the promising results we have seen so far, we intend to perform further experiments to evaluate whether blocking these proteins could prevent lung metastasis of breast cancer. Successfully limiting lung metastasis could not only reduce the number of deaths caused by breast cancer, but also allow more patients to live long, fulfilling lives.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

-Sami Khan, MSc Candidate

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

Does stress affect breast cancer tumour growth?

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Jenna Kara

Jenna Kara in the Dept. of Medical Biophysics at Western University

Hello! My name is Jenna Kara and I’m an MSc student in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University, working in the labs of Paula Foster, PhD and Dwayne Jackson, PhD.

Studies have found relationships between elevated stress and poor survival in cancer patients. I study how stress affects breast cancer tumour growth and progression.

During stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system releases a substance called neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY binds to receptors in the body, and we’ve shown that NPY can make breast cancer cells grow faster and make blood vessels form (which is important for tumour growth).

Interestingly, women with family histories of breast cancer tend to have greater sympathetic neurotransmitter release under normal living conditions.

My work tests three breast cancer cell types of varying aggressiveness for expression of NPY receptors, and measures their growth in response to NPY treatment.

In addition, I’m using MRI cell tracking to monitor tumour growth progression and metastasis. In this study we look to see if blocking the target receptors of NPY blunts tumour growth and spread.

This research could uncover NPY receptors as potential drug targets, providing patients with a better risk assessment of cancer recurrence.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
– Jenna Kara, MSc student
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

Cancer stem cells: a unique approach to assessing breast cancer metastasis

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Ashkan Sadri

Sadri in the Dept. of Anatomy and Cell Biology

Hello! My name is Ashkan Sadri and I’m a Masters candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. As a recent addition to Dr. Alison Allan’s lab at London Regional Cancer Program, today marks the first time you’ll be hearing from me!

What most intrigued me about the work conducted in Dr. Allan’s lab was the translational relevance of ongoing projects, but further, their unique approach to assessing human breast cancer spread (metastasis) through a cancer stem cell (CSC) perspective.

Stem cells are best known for their regenerative potential, which coincides with characteristics found in stem-like tumour cells.

Our previous studies have shown that certain breast cancer CSCs preferentially migrate and/or metastasize to the lungs and bones, where secondary tumours can severely impede organ function; the specific role of these organs in promoting metastasis, however, remains poorly understood. This is where I get involved.

Currently, I’m investigating the potential of the bone and lung microenvironments to promote stem-like traits in human breast cancer cells. Understanding how these microenvironments affect tumour cells could hold the key to intervening with breast cancer metastasis and tumour development altogether.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
– Ashkan Sadri
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

Implementing a robotic arm to image breast tumours

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Lawrence Yip

Lawrence Yip implementing a robotic arm

Hello! My name is Lawrence Yip and I’m a Master’s student in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dr. Jeffrey Carson’s Optics Lab.

You might have seen Ivan Kosik’s blog posts describing his work in improving the success rate of breast-conserving surgery. I’m working on the next generation of Ivan’s imaging system. Specifically, I’m designing, building and implementing a new imaging system that uses a novel robotic arm and custom sensors to more accurately image breast tumours.

As a first-year Master’s student, the past year has been a great journey and learning experience. Whether it’s figuring out how to use a 3D printer or getting lost in the hospital, every day there is something new to discover. I’m very excited to build a system that has so much potential to help breast cancer patients!

This past month, at London Health Research Day, I was able to attend my first conference and present a poster on my work! It was an exciting day.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
Lawrence Yip, MSc Candidate
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

Using MRI to detect TAM cells

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Ashley Makela, PhD candidate

Hi! My name is Ashley Makela and I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I’m working at Robarts Research Institute in Dr. Paula Foster’s lab where MRI cell tracking is a main focus.

My research involves using MRI to detect and quantify specific cells called tumour associated macrophages (TAMs), which are associated with cancer. The presence of these cells in breast cancer correlates with an aggressive tumour, metastasis (the spread of the primary tumour to distant sites in the body) and a poor patient prognosis.

We’re excited because our imaging has been telling us a lot about the breast cancer tumour microenvironment – for instance, we can visualize these cells within a mouse model of breast cancer. The ability to do this may produce important information about the influence of TAMs on tumour growth and metastatic spread, and give insight on how to use this information to aid in detection, prognosis and treatment evaluation.

The next few months will be exciting ones! I’ll be busy writing a research paper and will be presenting my research at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine conference in Singapore this May.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
Ashley Makela, PhD Candidate
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

Examining how breast cancer tumour ‘seeds’ travel to other organs

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Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres

Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres

Hello! I’m Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres and I’m a PhD student in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University, working under the supervision of Dr. Alison Allan.

Most breast cancer deaths occur as a result of metastasis, the process whereby tumour cells leave the breast through the bloodstream and establish themselves in other organs. These metastatic tumours are often difficult to find and have an increased capacity for therapy resistance.

Furthermore, there is strong scientific evidence indicating that not all tumour cells have an equal ability to seed themselves in distant organs. In particular, a very aggressive group of breast tumour cells, also known as breast cancer stem cells, have been found to display an increased ability to form metastasis.

We’re identifying the molecular factors utilized by these tumour seeds to enter, be planted and thrive in distant organs. The identification and subsequent interference of the action of these factors with new drugs has the potential to improve breast cancer treatment by blocking the lethal seeding activity of breast cancer to distant vital organs, such as the lung.

Because so many breast cancer patients die from metastasis affecting their vital organs, we’re aiming to identify and control the tumour cells responsible for metastatic behavior.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres, PhD student
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre