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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



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


“Research is a shared responsibility of participants and investigators”

posted by:
Neil W

Becky S., 37, calls herself “a girl on a winning streak.” That might sound a bit strange after you learn that she is a breast cancer survivor who has had an extensive history of surgery and chemotherapy. Yet, Becky truly believes that her hormone-sensitive stage II breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 2016, has been a stroke of luck, unlike other forms of the disease. “With my particular type of cancer, I seem to be eligible to participate in a clinical trial to become pregnant. I must take tamoxifen for five years. Hopefully the trial will give me a chance to have a baby safer.”

It has long been thought that pregnancy increases the probability of breast cancer relapse and the appearance of distant metastases, especially for women with estrogen-positive (ER+) disease. Estrogen plays a significant role during pregnancy, but it also provokes ER+ cancer cells growth and can awaken cancer cells that remain in the body even after the heavy treatment.

Clinical Trials Word CloudYet, findings from a multicenter retrospective study show that for women with a history of ER+ breast cancer, pregnancy can be safe. The findings of the study were presented at the 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting by lead study author Dr. Matteo Lambertini (the Jules Bordet Institute in Brussels, Belgium).

Just a year ago, Becky had never heard words like “retrospective study” or “clinical trials”.  Her immersion in the field of breast cancer research unfolded gradually after a casual chat with her co-worker Lizzy at a party last year. Lizzy’s grandmother died of breast cancer many years ago, when tamoxifen was not available. The only option for endocrine therapy for women with ER+ breast cancer was oophorectomy, i.e. ovary removal. This procedure left women unable to have any biological children.

“Lizzy told me – Hey, you keep your ovaries inside, so technically you can have a baby! Science is constantly evolving. Just ask your doctor about the options for you,” recalls Becky. “Lizzy’s words firmly caught my mind. But my husband said pregnancy may be dangerous. He said, ‘I don’t need a child in exchange for your life.’”

Undeterred, Becky began searching for information on pregnancy after breast cancer treatment. She faced a lot of controversial opinions and specific medical terms. “I’ve read through so many specialised websites that I consider myself a kind of a self-taught researcher,” says Becky with a smile. Now, she confidently differentiates randomised controlled studies from, say, meta-analyses and reads a PubMed without having to double-check what a P-value is.

“It is not that overwhelming. Rather, the opposite, in fact. I would recommend all cancer survivors to be aware of what is going on in the field. Since I started learning more about cancer research, I feel calmer and a bit more protected. I see how hard researchers work on a cancer cure and how much has already been done to fight breast cancer. It’s highly supportive.”

Recently, Becky heard about The POSITIVE study that will research breast cancer and pregnancy. This study will evaluate the pregnancy outcomes and safety of interrupting endocrine therapy for young women with endocrine responsive breast cancer who wish to become pregnant. In other words, the goal of this study is to assess whether it is safe for breast cancer survivors to temporarily stop taking their hormone blockers such as tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, which are normally recommended for 5-10 years after initial treatment and may be dangerous for a fetus. The study also aims to evaluate different specific indicators related to fertility, pregnancy and breast cancer biology in young women.

Becky S Quote

“This study is exactly what I need,” says Becky. “I believe it is my chance to both become a mother and show other women that hormone-positive breast cancer is no longer a sentence to childlessness.”

Participants will put endocrine therapy on hold for up to two years to enable pregnancy, delivery and breast-feeding. Then, therapy will be resumed. Participants will also be followed for 10 years after enrollment in the study. More information about the POSITIVE study can be found on (Registration # NCT02308085).

The good news is that The POSITIVE is currently active in Canada. I met with Becky at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, one of the participating institutions, where she came to learn more about the study. As a curious patient, she has already familiarized herself with all the details available on the Internet and compiled a list of questions to ask a clinical trials professional.

“Clinical trials and research are a shared responsibility of participants and investigators,” says Becky. “Some folks who are aware of my plan told me that I will be a kind of guinea pig, but they are completely wrong. I will become a teammate with a very special role, and hopefully I will become a mother some day despite the breast cancer in my past.

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).


Marc Guay – What’s my Breast Cancer Story?

posted by:
Neil W

Marc GuayMarc Guay sits on the Breast Cancer Society of Canada board of directors, we recently asked him what his cancer story is. This is the story he told us, this is Marc Guay’s cancer story.

It never really occurred to me that it would happen. And happen. And happen.

The first time was twelve years ago when I lost my beautiful sister-in-law, Kim. She was 38 at the time and the shock sent ripples of absolute devastation through our family.

Soon after, I lost my dear friend and colleague, Teri, to the disease as well. She was also 38—an equally devastating tragedy. And if that wasn’t enough—both my mother and another close colleague, Anne-Marie, were both diagnosed and are survivors of breast cancer—an absolute blessing. And it was these two positive outcomes that made me realize that there is hope and that there is a lot I can do to help.

Today, you will not likely find a single person who hasn’t been touched by the disease. In fact, in Canada, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death and one in 30 Canadian women will unfortunately die from it—startling statistics wouldn’t you agree?

It is for this reason that my family’s mission is to actively support, raise awareness for and donate time and money to help fight it. Advances in medicine today are improving survival rates dramatically, and I strongly believe that both Kim and Teri would still be with us today if science, then, was what it is today. If we can save one mother, one wife, one daughter, sister, family member, friend and colleague, then it’s a fight worth pursuing.

Throughout my career, I have been in positions where I’ve engaged people in initiatives, projects and programs, developed to further the business objectives of my organization. I then decided that I wanted to use those skills to do the same for important causes, such as breast cancer. Having been touched by the disease so many times, I have and continue to be actively involved in the cause—taking part in Walk for Breast Cancer among other things—as well as being actively involved in raising funds to further breast cancer research.

Marc and Kim dancing on the dock at the cottage before she succumbed to the breast cancer.

Marc and Kim dancing on the dock
at the cottage before she succumbed
to the breast cancer.

Today—a retired business executive—I am dedicating a large portion of my time to breast
cancer research, which is why I am now serving on the Breast Cancer Society of Canada board of directors and am chairing its Fund Development Committee. Joining BCSC is very important as it allows me to make a difference and, of course, honour Kim and Teri—whose lives were taken too soon. Simply, breast cancer steals lives and I want that to end.

There is hope. And we can do this. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Like Marc Guay start making a difference today give to life-saving breast research. Learn more about ways you can give on


Uncovering the role of RNA in breast cancer

posted by:
Neil W

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

posted by:
Neil W

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

posted by:
Neil W

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


Miss Teenage Toronto supports BCSC

posted by:
Neil W

Miss Teenage Toronto 2017 (Alexia Antonio) has been very active this July, volunteering and running fundraising events across Toronto in support of a number of different charities, including ours! Alexia will be hosting a number of tables in the Bay Adelaide Centre concourse, on July 25, 26 and 27, between 9am and 5pm. She will be located across the Second Cup in the PATH concourse for the centre.

Alexia Antonio BCSC FundraiserAlexia has prepared dozens of gift baskets to help support her fundraising efforts. With every donation of $5, $10 and $20, donors are eligible for different types of gift bags with various beauty products enclosed – 100% of all proceeds will go the Breast Cancer Society Of Canada, funding life-saving breast cancer research.

We are looking forward to hearing more about Alexia BCSC fundraising event from her directly, when we interview her about her experience fundraising for us and fund out why she has chosen the Breast Cancer Society of Canada as one of her charities of choice.

More about Miss Teenage Toronto 2017,
Alexia is a kind and an open-minded young woman who is determined to achieve her life goals while making positive contributions in the world. Alexia currently hold the title of Miss Teenage Toronto and strongly supports women’s needs and the empowerment and equality for all women. Alexia aims to spread the message of courage, strength and confidence through her Beauty Inside campaign. Alexia is currently attending York University and her hobbies include swimming, reading and performing in Shakespearean plays. Alexia has a passion for fencing and is currently on the York University fencing team and dreams of competing in the Olympics.

Follow Alexia during her fundraising event for BCSC on
Facebook,  Instagram and her blog for all the up to the moment fun details over the next three days as she supports funding life-saving breast cancer research.  Because #ResearchMatters


Finding a Novel Strategy to Prevent Metastasis

posted by:
Neil W

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalia Mukhina –
Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate


Natalia Mukhina - Health Journalist

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



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

posted by:
Neil W

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

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

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

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

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