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Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Alison Allan’

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


Presenting, Learning, and Engaging

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The value in attending a professional cancer research conference

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

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

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

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

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

– Ashkan Sadri

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

Investigating how breast cancer spreads to the skeleton

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Graciella Pio, student researcher

Graciella Pio, student researcher

Hello everyone! My name is Graciella Pio and I’m an MSc student in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. I work under the supervision of Dr. Alison Allan at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program.

My MSc project focuses on investigating the ways that breast cancer cells spread to the skeleton, as this process takes place in many breast cancer patients and usually causes bone pain, bone fractures, numbness and sometimes even paralysis. Bone tumours in breast cancer patients are currently incurable; patients with this condition usually only survive about two years. I’m trying to determine what about the bone environment makes it an attractive place for breast cancer cells to grow into secondary tumours.

So far, I’ve found that a specific protein in the bone, called Osteopontin or OPN for short, causes breast cancer cells to migrate to bone and also allows them to grow into tumours within the bone. Now that we know this about OPN, we could use this information to help develop therapeutics for breast cancer patients that prevent or reduce tumour spread to the bone!

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

3D lung model used to study the growth and progression of breast cancer within the lung

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NEW: Watch Matt and Dr. Allan discuss their research on CTV London news:

Hi! My name is Matt Piaseczny and I’m an MSc student in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. I work under the supervision of Alison Allan, PhD at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program.

Alison Allan, PhD and Matt Piaseczny (MSc candidate)

There are many different focuses within our lab, but my project and interests deal with breast cancer metastasis to the lung, specifically.

In particular, the lung is one of the most common and deadly organs for breast cancer to spread to, for reasons that are largely unknown. In order to understand what makes the lung attractive for breast cancer, I’m working on the development of an innovative 3D lung model to study the growth and progression of breast cancer within the lung.

Generally speaking, scientists grow and experiment with cancer cells in the lab outside of their host environments. However, there are often limitations to this, as these cells lack interaction with the native environments they would normally encounter within the body and therefore can often behave differently than they would within the body.

The establishment of this 3D model will help us to better understand how breast cancer interacts with the native lung, so we can exploit certain aspects of this to develop better targeted therapies and hopefully limit the extent of lung-related metastasis in breast cancer patients.

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

New study sheds light on why breast cancer often spreads to the lung

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Breast cancer is the number one diagnosed cancer and the number two cause of cancer-related deaths among Canadian women.  If detected early, traditional chemotherapy and radiation have a high success rate, but once the disease spreads beyond the breast, many conventional treatments fail. In particular, the lung is one of the most common and deadly sites of breast cancer metastasis and this has a significant impact on patient quality of life and survival.

Metastatic breast cancer stem cells extravasating (invading) into the lungs from a blood vessel to establish a metastatic tumour.

New research led by Alison Allan, PhD, a scientist working in the Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) at London Health Sciences Centre, reveals some clues as to why breast cancer often spreads or metastasizes to the lung. Previous work by Dr. Allan’s research team has shown that a specific type of breast cancer cell, the breast cancer stem cell (CSC), is responsible for metastasis in animal models, particularly to the lung.

In their most recent paper, published in the journal Neoplasia, the researchers developed an innovative ex vivo (outside the living organism) model system that simulates different organ environments. They observed that breast CSCs have a particular propensity for migrating towards and growing in the lung, and they identified specific interactions between breast CSCs and lung-derived proteins that could be disrupted to reduce the metastatic behavior of breast cancer. This work was led by graduate student Jenny Chu and post-doctoral fellow Dr. Ying Xia, both funded by scholarships supported by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada.

The research was led by TBCRU scientist Dr. Alison Allan (left) and her trainees Jenny Chu (middle) and Dr. Ying Xia (right).

In metastasis, there’s a theory called the seed and soil hypothesis.  This is analogous to a dandelion: when it goes to seed, the seeds blow all over the place, but they don’t necessarily grow everywhere they land; they grow only in congenial soil that has the right nutrients that support the growth of seeds in a foreign environment. In the situation of metastasis, the tumour cells (“seeds”) have some inherent factors that determine their aggressiveness and ability to metastasize, while the different organs (“soil”) are believed to provide important factors that attract tumour cells to particular organs and help support their survival and growth into metastatic tumours.

A lot of research has been done on the role of breast cancer cells because they’re easier to study, but not a lot has gone into understanding the “soil” factor.  Dr. Allan and her research team uncovered some specific proteins that are produced in the lung called osteopontin (OPN) and L-selectin, and they observed that these two proteins specifically interact with a protein called CD44 on the breast cancer stem cells, making the lungs a congenial place for aggressive breast CSCs to grow.

Looking forward, the translation of this knowledge to patient care could have important future implications for the improved treatment of breast cancer. The results of this study will also lay the groundwork for future clinical studies aimed at investigating whether increased breast CSCs in the primary tumour may pre-dispose some patients to lung metastasis and, if so, whether monitoring (i.e. by imaging or ex vivo analysis) may be beneficial for early detection and successful treatment.

London Citywide Breast Cancer Retreat 2014

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Dr. Ted Vandenberg welcomes attendees to the Third Annual London Translational Breast Cancer Research Retreat

Dr. Vandenberg 

The Third Annual London Translational Breast Cancer Research Retreat was held on January 10, 2014. The retreat was organized by the Pamela Greenaway Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit and the London Breast Disease Site Council.  Our theme this year was “Translational Breast Cancer Research: Research Successes and Prospects for the Future.”

The nearly 50 attendees included research scientists from seven different departments at Western University, as well as medical and radiation oncologists, surgeons, pathologists, molecular geneticists, physicists, nurses and others involved with breast cancer patient care in London, Ontario.  Attendees also included 19 trainees, MSc and PhD students and postdoctoral scholars, who have been awarded TBCRU trainee awards.  It was a diverse group, bringing a variety of points of view and expertise to breast cancer research and patient care.A key component of the retreat was research presentations from four of our senior TBCRU trainees.


TBCRU trainees who presented their research at the Retreat, left to right: Gabrielle Siegers, PhD; Camilla Urbaniak, PhD candidate; Dr. Gregor Reid, Camilla’s graduate supervisor; Omar El-Sherif, PhD candidate; Stephanie Dorman, PhD candidate; Dr. Peter Rogan, Stephanie’s graduate supervisor

Omar El-Sherif, PhD student in the Medical Biophysics Department and supervised by Dr. Stewart Gaede, spoke about his research to improve radiation treatment planning for patients with left-sided breast cancer, in order to minimize radiation damage to the heart.   PhD student Camilla Urbaniak, Department of Microbiology & Immunology and supervised by Dr. Gregor Reid, described her studies on the protective vs. harmful effects of different bacteria in breast cancer development.  Stephanie Dorman, PhD student in the Biochemistry Department, supervised by Dr. Peter Rogan, outlined her work to discover new mutations in genes important to metastatic breast cancer, based on novel bioinformatics approaches.   Gabrielle Siegers, PhD, a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, supervised by Dr. Lynne-Marie Postovit, presented her research on how Nodal, a breast tumor-associated protein, may change the anti-tumour properties of an immune cell type called Gamma Delta T cells. All four trainee talks generated lively discussion, and new clinical links were formed or enhanced at the meeting to facilitate the translation of these research studies to benefit patients.

The program also included research progress updates from Drs. Muriel Brackstone (tumor banking), Peter Ainsworth (new developments in BRCA1/2 genetic testing) and Paula Foster (improved imaging for patients with brain metastases).  Dr. Ted Vandenberg presented an overview on emerging trends in the care of breast cancer patients for the future, based on research successes. To close out the day, Drs. Ann Chambers and Alison Allan led an interactive and animated discussion with the entire group about improved methods for early detection of breast cancer metastases and clinical implications.

Attendees at the Breast Cancer Research Retreat

Attendees at the Breast Cancer Research Retreat

All in all, the retreat was a resounding success, with positive feedback from attendees including thanks for a “thought-provoking” meeting. We look forward to capitalizing on the new ideas and relationships generated in order to move patient-centred breast cancer research forward in exciting new directions in 2014!


– Dr. Ann Chambers, Director of the Pamela Greenaway Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU)

Dr. Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres studying aggressive breast cancer stem cells

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dr mauricio

Dr. Alison Allan (left) and Dr. Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres (right) at the Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) at London Regional Cancer Program, London Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Western University. In 2012-2013, Mauricio received a scholarship from the Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) to perform some exciting research at London Regional Cancer Program at London Health Sciences Centre. This scholarship is supported by the award from the Breast Cancer Society of Canada to the TBCRU. Originally trained as a medical doctor in Colombia, Mauricio is now carrying out his graduate studies with translational scientist Dr. Alison Allan. He is studying a very specific type of aggressive breast cancer cells called “cancer stem cells” that are responsible for distant spread (metastasis) and therapy resistance in breast cancer, with the goal of identifying the specific molecular factors used by these breast cancer cells to travel to and grow in organs such as the lung. In the future, this information could lead to new, more effective targeted therapies for breast cancer.

Recently, Mauricio was awarded a Vanier Scholarship by the Government of Canada, the most prestigious doctoral scholarship given out in Canada. These scholarships were created to attract and retain world-class doctoral students and to establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. Mauricio was selected based on his outstanding leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the health sciences. We are very proud to have him as a TBCRU trainee working on patient-focused breast cancer research!