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Archive for the ‘Researcher’s Blog’ Category

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

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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.

Creating better drugs to treat breast cancer

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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.

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

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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.

Determining how proteins interact with breast cancer cells

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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

 

Investigating early events in estrogen signaling

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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

What being a breast cancer researcher has taught me.

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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

 

Introducing New Breast Cancer Research Trainee Scholarships in London

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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

Uncovering the role of RNA in breast cancer

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My name is Thomas Huynh and I’m a Masters student in Dr. Paola Marcato’s laboratory in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie University. The support generously provided to me by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and the QEII foundation through the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute has been invaluable in helping me pursue my research goals.

Thomas Huynh BCSC ResearcherWorking with Dejan Vidovic, a fellow graduate student in Dr. Marcato’s laboratory, our work focuses on uncovering the role of a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) discovered by Dejan in breast cancer disease. Previously dismissed as “genomic junk”, evidence is emerging that lncRNAs play a pivotal role in the development, progression and pathology of breast cancer. Our work shows that the lncRNA RAINR has an oncogenic role in breast cancer. Employing a variety of molecular technologies, we observed that knocking down expression of RAINR dramatically increases the apoptosis of breast cancer cells and decreases their proliferation, indicating its importance in disease development. We are now working towards characterizing the mechanisms behind RAINR function. This could potentially uncover a new therapeutic target for the treatment of breast cancer.

I am extremely grateful for the support provided to me for this project, as well as other opportunities to expand my graduate experience. I was afforded the opportunity to attend an international cancer conference in Florence, Italy to share my work with other high caliber researchers and was recently awarded the inaugural CRTP Collaboration Grant to start a new project studying the treatment of a subtype of leukemia in collaboration with Dr. Ian Weaver’s research group at Dalhousie University.

Thank you once again BCSC as well as the BHCRI and the QEII Foundation for your ongoing support,

Thomas Huynh

3D Surface Imaging Technique for Breast Cancer

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My name is Olivia Tong and I am a MESc candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering under Drs. Jeffrey Carson and Mamadou Diop at Lawson Health Research Institute.

BCSC Researcher - Olivia Tong - 3D Surface Imaging Technique for Breast CancerWe are developing a non-contact scanner that can monitor the blood oxygen level in the tumor during chemotherapy. The success of this project will lead to a new diagnostic method that can quickly identify the most effective chemotherapy drug for each breast cancer patient. You might have seen Lawrence Yip’s blog posts regarding Photoacoustic Imaging Research. For this scanner, we also use photoacoustic imaging to detect breast tumors. As an improvement, we are building a non-contact system. I am working on a component of this non-contact scanner that captures the 3D shape of the breast using 3D surface imaging technique. The 3D information of the breast is important for reconstructing the photoacoustic images collected by the other component of the scanner.

The support of TBCRU enabled me to purchase a commercial structured light scanner for the development of my system. My next step is to evaluate the performance of my system on a small group of human subjects before integrating my component into the non-contact scanner. For this project, we also collaborate closely with clinicians at the breast cancer center at St. Joseph’s Hospital and researchers at McMaster University.

This May, I have the opportunity to meet with our collaborators and learn more about biomedical optics. I am very grateful to be supported by TBCRU and work for this amazing project.

Personalized radiation from the inside-out

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My name is Justin Michael and I’m an MESc candidate studying in the Department of Biomedical Engineering under Dr. Aaron Fenster in the Robarts Research Institute.

Just weeks after Canada’s 150th birthday, complete with fireworks and concerts, I travelled to our nation’s capital to present at a scientific conference on a distinctly Canadian project. I presented technology to improve the accuracy of a relatively new breast cancer treatment. Pioneered at Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital, the treatment implants radioactive “seeds” in the patient’s breast, delivering personalized radiation from the inside-out in a single visit. It replaces the weeks-long standard approach of delivering radiation from the outside-in, reducing the burden of treatment to the patient. Using ultrasound imaging and simple robotics, we’ve developed tools to help doctors implant the seeds more easily and more accurately.

Justin Michael

From left to right: Justin Michael, TBCRU graduate student; Luc Beaulieu, Professor – Laval University; Aaron Fenster, Imaging Scientist & TBCRU Supervisor – Western University; Deidre Batchelar, Medical Physicist & Adjunct Professor – University of British Columbia Okanogan

Working under Dr. Aaron Fenster in London’s Robarts Research Institute, we’ve collaborated closely with clinicians and researchers at the cancer center in Kelowna, BC. Their center serves patients from throughout the BC interior, some of whom travel up to 350 km for treatment, making shorter radiation especially important. In addition to partnering with researchers in Canada’s West, the research builds on previous technology developed with physicists at Quebec’s Laval University in Canada’s East.

In Ottawa, I showed the tools we’ve built are nearly ready. Our next step is testing on surgical simulators developed at the University of Calgary before moving into clinical trials.

Through research touching four provinces and three time-zones, we’re working to improve options for patients battling breast cancer. Though the Canada Day fireworks have come and gone, researchers in London and across the country still have plenty to celebrate.

Thank you to the BCSC for their support.

Justin Michael, MESc Candidate