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Posts Tagged ‘university of western ontario’

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


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

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

Developing a molecular imaging technique using MRI

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Hello, My name is Yonathan Araya, I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work in the Imaging Research Laboratories at Robarts Research Institute under the supervision Dr. Timothy Scholl.

Yonathan Araya Breast Cancer ResearcherDr. Scholl’s lab focuses on developing advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques for use with novel molecular imaging probes of cancers. These molecular imaging probes are important tools to help oncologists map enzymes, proteins and amino acids, which are difficult to detect using conventional MRI methods and are linked to different cancers. The new methods (collectively known as molecular imaging) would help to assess solid tumours and measure their response to treatment.

The focus of my project has been developing a molecular imaging technique using MRI for the detection of specific proteins and cell-based interactions in breast cancers. I exploit the specific magnetic field dependence of tissues and contrast agents using our fast field-cycling magnet (which we call ‘dreMR’) to assess the metabolism and inflammatory response of solid breast cancer tumours. Last year, I described in our findings that there was a weak magnetic field dependence of tissues at clinical magnetic field strengths and that we can exploit this information to characterize cancerous tissues. The work was submitted to a scientific journal.

Currently, our lab is interested in measuring the up-regulation of serum albumin and the increased inflammatory response associated with the poor prognosis breast cancers and quantifying the changes in response to therapeutic treatment. This work is ongoing at the University Hospital and Robarts Research Institute.

Thank you for your trainee support!

– Yonathan Araya, PhD candidate

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

Receptor for Hyaluronan-Mediated Motility or RHAMM

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Hi everyone!

My name is Alexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi and I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Western University. I work in Dr. Len Luyt’s lab at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program.

Alexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi - BCSC Breast Cancer ResearcherFor the past few years, I have been studying the protein RHAMM (Receptor for Hyaluronan-Mediated Motility). RHAMM levels increase in response to fragmentation of the compound hyaluronan (HA), which ultimately results in the spread of cancer and thus poorer outcomes for breast cancer patients.

We have recently been developing stapled peptides as RHAMM mimics. “Stapled” peptides are compounds that have been partially cyclized, giving them the appearance of having a “stapled” backbone. This “stapling” allows the peptide to circulate through the body longer than it would otherwise. This is ideal, as our RHAMM mimics are part of a drug discovery initiative, in which we have shown that they are able to block inflammation associated with breast cancer relating to fragmented HA. The RHAMM mimics could also help stop the disease from spreading to other parts of the body.

In September of 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the 34th European Peptide Symposium and 8th International Peptide Symposium in Leipzig, Germany. I was one of eight chosen to give an oral presentation in front of 700 scientists. This experience was frightening but also thrilling, and the high point of my graduate student career to date. After meeting with and learning from experts in the field, I returned to the lab full of new ideas on how to make our compounds better drugs for treating breast cancer.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!
– Alexandra Hauser-Kawaguchi, PhD candidate
Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

Imaging biomarkers in treatment of breast cancer with high-dose radiation therapy

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My name is Matthew Mouawad. I am a third-year PhD student in the department of Medical Biophysics at Western University working under the supervision of Drs. Stewart Gaede and Neil Gelman.

Matthew Mouawad, CAMPEP PhD candidate Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit, London Health Sciences Centre

With the high prevalence of breast cancers (1 in 9 women) in North America, we need to find ways to minimize the emotional and physical burden on patients and explore more efficient treatment techniques. Currently, breast-conserving therapies will often include five weeks of post-surgery radiotherapy, which can be prohibitively long for many patients. Furthermore, we currently do not have methods to non-invasively evaluate tumour control at an early stage.

To address these two limitations, London Regional Cancer Program is conducting a clinical trial headed by Drs. Muriel Brackstone, Michael Lock, and Brian Yaremko that is looking to reduce treatment time from five weeks to a single session, using high-dose radiotherapy. My role in this project is to use imaging we acquire from the hybrid PET-MRI at St. Joseph’s hospital to assess tumour control within seven days of treatment! The treatment technique would minimize patient burden significantly and the imaging would allow us to explore alternative ways to treat patients and potentially allow for adaptive patient treatment techniques.

We have successfully treated 14 patients using the new high-dose radiotherapy technique and have developed an imaging protocol that will allow us to investigate various tumour biomarkers. I look forward to presenting the most recent results in an manuscript within the next few months.

Thank you to BCSC for your trainee support!

– Matthew Mouawad, CAMPEP PhD candidate

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


Blocking the cancer-related signal in HER2 breast cancer

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Greetings! My name is Xuguang Liu and I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at Western University, working with Dr. Shawn Li. We’re focused on cancer system biology and exploring the potential applications of our research in the treatment of HER2 positive breast cancer.

Dr. Shawn Li and Xuguang Liu

HER2 positive breast cancer is diagnosed as overactivity of proto-oncogene HER2. HER2 normally generates adequate growth signal to promote healthy cell growth; however, when over-activated, it can stimulate more-than-enough growth signal resulting in uncontrollable cell growth, thus a tumour forms.

In research labs, many strategies have been applied to fight this cancer type, but most of them lack druggability and not translated into clinical practice. By far, the most effective and applicable treatment is de-activating HER2 using inhibitors, such as Tykerb and Herceptin that have been approved for years.

Preliminary work in our lab suggests an alternative way to develop novel therapies for this cancer type. Unlike those inhibitors that generally de-activate HER2 in all cells, our engineered HER2-binding monobody may precisely bind to a selected region in HER2 protein to block the cancer-related signal, and potentially will bring fewer side effects to health tissue. In our initial test, this agent can effectively kill lab-cultured HER2 positive cancer cells.

In addition, by borrowing the strategy used in hundreds of clinical-trial anti-cancer medicines, we’re testing and optimizing the nanomaterial-based drug delivery system, aiming to efficiently send this monobody into a tumour through intravenous injection.

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

The 5th International Symposium on Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer

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Natasha Caminsky, with her graduate supervisor, Dr. Peter Rogan, a Mentor of the Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit training program

Hi! My name is Natasha Caminsky and I am a first year MSc student in the Biochemistry Department at Western University, working in the laboratory of Pamela Greenaway-Kohlmeier Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit Mentor Dr. Peter Rogan.

From April 22-25, 2014 I had the opportunity to participate in the 5th International Symposium on Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC), which took place in Montreal, Quebec. The HBOC Foundation is the primary organizing body of this meeting and hosts it once every two years.

This year, researchers, clinicians, counsellors and industry leaders from countries around the world (including Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) came together to share their discoveries and address specific challenges that we all share within the field. The theme of the meeting was BRCA – Twenty years of advances, in order to mark the 20th anniversary since the discovery of the BRCA1 gene (one of the main genes responsible for hereditary breast cancer).

This conference was particularly interesting for me because I had previously never attended such a specialized meeting. In the past, I have presented my work at conferences which focus either on health or cancer research, such that the breadth of subjects is very broad and it is rare that I would find many, if any, other individuals performing research on the same topic as myself.

In the case of the HBOC Symposium, with over 100 posters and 43 presentations, I was surrounded by individuals investigating the same breast cancer genes as we are, using the same techniques as us, and facing some of the same challenges that we are attempting to overcome. What I found most exciting was that the majority of authors that I have cited in my work were standing before me, presenting their most recent findings.

Because there were so many specialists of varied expertise in attendance, the conference was divided into sessions which each addressed a particular subject of importance to HBOC. The first that was of particular interest to me covered cancer mutations, cancer gene variants and genetic databases.

Right now, a huge obstacle that researchers are facing is the number of mutations that are being detected thanks to the rapidly advancing machines that are being invented. This session was meant to present efficient ways of cataloguing all this information online in a database so that it’s accessible to everyone and people can contribute to it when then make new discoveries. The amount of collaboration and organization that went into these projects was striking!

The final talk of the session was given by my supervisor, Dr. Rogan. Our project fit in very well with the topic of this session, as we are seeking to identify and prioritize mutations that, for now, we do not know how to interpret. Tools such as the ones presented in the earlier talks will be a great resource for us and we hope to be able to contribute our project’s findings to this database.

Some of the highlights from the other sessions included the new types of drugs available for breast cancer treatment (such as PARP inhibitors and specific chemotherapy), as well as resources available for patients and families with BRCA mutations.

For example, is an online forum developed by the University of California, San Francisco which is available to individuals seeking to communicate with other affected families, access information, and communicate with experts in the field.

There was great emphasis put on the advantages and disadvantages of removing the fallopian tubes in patients with BRCA mutations. This could be a potential alternative to an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) in patients of reproductive age who don’t have breast cancer and have already had a mastectomy.

Finally, another session focused on the discovery of additional cancer genes, aside from the well-known BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are currently used for genetic testing for HBOC.

In addition to the presentations, we also had the opportunity to take part in one of four workshops, each of which addressed key issues faced by doctors and researchers.

The event ended with a keynote speech by Dr. Douglas Easton (University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK), who elegantly summarized the history of HBOC research and the discovery of genes associated with the disease. He also discussed the issue of variants of uncertain significance, and finished by giving his opinion of how to deal with all of these issues and where research should be focusing its efforts in the years to come.

All in all, this was a unique experience that I feel privileged to have taken part in. It was great to see the work that others are doing on the same subject as my research because it shows how important and relevant it is to treating breast cancer patients and allowing for prevention within families.

I hope to go back for the next meeting in two years and am excited to see what answers we will have found to the questions that we have today.

Studying the growth of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer to the brain

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Donna and paula

TBCRU trainee Donna Murrell (right), graduate student in the Department of Medical Biophysics, and her graduate supervisor, Dr. Paula Foster (left), a world leader in the use of cellular MRI to investigate the growth and permeability of brain metastatic breast cancer in response to radiotherapy.

Hello! My name is Donna Murrell – I’m a TBCRU trainee and a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work with Dr. Paula Foster – a world leader in cellular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – and have really enjoyed my first year in the lab!

We study the similarities and differences in the growth of breast cancer that is HER2-positive and metastatic to the brain. Through the use of cutting-edge experimental MRI approaches, we are able to monitor individual cancer cells and metastatic growth in the brain over time. Some tumours are “leaky” and some are not, which we believe may influence how tumours will respond to therapy. Both types can exist in the brain at the same time and tumours can switch from not leaky to leaky as they grow. This makes detection and treatment strategies very difficult. Understanding the naturally occurring differences in tumour development is important for advancing detection strategies and treatment options so that we can impact patient survival.

I’d like to thank the Breast Cancer Society of Canada for your generous support of the TBCRU. My TBCRU-funded scholarship has enabled me to achieve some very exciting things in the last couple of months.

I published my first paper with Dr. Foster, and TBCRU Director Dr. Ann Chambers, reviewing the lessons learned from MRI experiments so far and how they may impact patients. It was very cool and so rewarding to see my work in print.

excerpt from journal

My research was also recently accepted for presentation at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine Annual Meeting this year in Milan, Italy. I’m so excited for the opportunity to present my work on the world stage!!