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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


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


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.

I know firsthand how important research is – Ruth Ackerman

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

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

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

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Ackerman - BCSC Giving Tuesday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalia Mukhina - Health Journalist

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


Kathy Steffan – What’s My Breast Cancer Story?

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Kathy Steefan - BCSC

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

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

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

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

Nicole on her 33rd Birthday in July 2017.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Finding a Novel Strategy to Prevent Metastasis

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“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).


Chemotherapy sounds the alarm

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Pat Murphy ResearcherGreetings! My name is Pat Murphy, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University in Dr. Shashi Gujar’s laboratory where we study cancer immunology and oncolytic (cancer-killing) viruses. I received funding support from the Breast Cancer Society of Canada and the QEII Foundation through the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute to study the immune response to chemotherapies.

Previous work has shown that some types of chemotherapies and oncolytic viruses enhance the ability of the immune system to detect and kill cancer cells. My work has used mass spectrometry to identify molecules called MHC-I peptides that are elicited by chemotherapies on tumors potentially alerting the immune system to their presence. I am now determining the effect of these MHC-I molecules on anti-tumor immunity to inform the design of new cancer vaccine strategies. These findings are exciting and I am grateful for the support of the Breast Cancer Society of Canada for this work.

Photoacoustic Imaging Research

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Hello, my name is Lawrence Yip, and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dr. Jeff Carson’s lab where I am developing a new imaging technology called Photoacoustic Imaging to help treat breast cancer.

Lawrence Yip Photoacoustic Imaging ResearchPhotoacoustic acoustic imaging uses short pulses of laser light to excite materials which cause them to generate their own sound waves that we can detect. This allows us to utilize the advantages of both ultrasound and optical (light) imaging. We are working on implementing photoacoustic imaging with the detection of tumour margins in breast-conserving surgery after the tumours are removed from the breast.

I’ve just about finished building the hardware for this imaging system, and this past year has been primarily spent troubleshooting various problems that came up, such as water getting into the system and electrical noise interfering with our results. I’m excited to start imaging objects later this month!

In December of 2016, I decided that I wanted to continue working on this project, and completed my reclassification to switch my MSc degree to PhD.  It was a daunting thought to commit another three years, but I’m also excited at the progress that this will allow me to achieve. I’ve also been encouraged by the interest I’ve seen in my work at several conferences these past few months, and I’ve also had the privilege of winning two poster presentation awards.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

-Lawrence Yip, PhD candidate

Editors Note:
Lawrence Yip, and many other breast cancer researchers across Canada are the reason why we walk every year at our annual Mother’s Day Walk, because research matters. Find our more about our annual fundraiser, sponsor someone or register to walk. Find out more at

MRI cell tracking for breast cancer

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Hi, My name is Ashley Makela and I am a PhD candidate in the department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I am working at Robarts Research Institute in Dr. Paula Foster’s lab where our main focus is to develop magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to “track” cells.

Ashley Makela - Breast Cancer ResearcherMy research involves using this MRI cell tracking specifically in breast cancer. Doing so, we can image specific cells called tumour associated macrophages (TAMs) and with this, we can get both information about the primary tumour and also visualize where the cancer spreads within the body (metastasis). We believe these cells are important to learn more about; their presence helps the tumour grow, allows the cancer to metastasize and they are associated with a poor prognosis in the majority of breast cancer cases. This research 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.

I’ve recently published my first research article and I’m looking forward to presenting my findings in Honolulu this April at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support.

– Ashley Makela, PhD Candidate

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