Harjot Athwal is a 2nd year MSc student in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Western University. She is conducting BCC-funded breast cancer research under the mentorship of Dr. Armen Parsyan and Dr. Alison Allan at the London Health Sciences Centre/Western University.
- Could you share your motivation/personal connection to breast cancer research?
At a young age, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and fortunately, it was successfully treated through surgery. Through this experience, I developed an interest in breast cancer and began to contemplate the widespread impact cancer has on so many individuals and how I could help ease their suffering. This initial interest in breast cancer led me to Western University, where I completed an Honours BMsc in Biochemistry and Cancer Biology. Today, I continue my journey as a breast cancer researcher by pursuing an MSc where I am studying the effects and mechanisms of new treatment approaches for breast cancer patients. By understanding this aggressive and deadly disease, I hope to make a positive impact on the health of women.
- What specific areas of breast cancer research are you currently focusing on, and why are they important?
Currently, I am investigating how combination therapies with radiation could help cause breast cancer cell death. Although radiation is a common treatment for breast cancer patients, some patients will develop resistance to radiation therapy. In other cancer types, combination treatments involving radiation and other drugs are used but these are lacking in breast cancer. My research aims to investigate the effectiveness of radiation treatment in combination with a drug called CFI-400945, which inhibits a protein caller Polo-Like Kinase 4 (PLK4) that is produced by breast cancer cells. My research goal is to better understand how this combination treatment can cause breast cancer cell death. This research will help support the future clinical use of this combination to improve outcomes in breast cancer patients.
- How do you see the future of breast cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, treatment evolving through research?
Through research, we are able to help reduce the incidence of breast cancer diagnoses and mortality by identifying new diagnostic and treatment biomarkers. Biomarkers serve as an indicator to help clinicians identify if a person may be at risk of developing cancer (diagnostic biomarker) or if for selection of a specific type of cancer therapy (predictive/treatment biomarkers). As an example relevant to my research, high levels of PLK4 in breast cancer patients could be a potential biomarker to identify their likelihood of responding to a PLK4 inhibitor such as CFI-400945. By identifying new biomarkers through research, we are able to help more patients with the fight against their cancer.
- What advice do you have for young individuals interested in pursuing a career in breast cancer research?
There are many fields you can go into as a breast cancer researcher. I would suggest reading up on the various research conducted by scientists to find the ones you are genuinely interested in. Reaching out to those scientists and showing interest and general knowledge of their research would show your passion and hopefully secure you a volunteer position. This will help you gain some initial experience working in a lab environment while also having the incredible opportunity to work alongside senior scientists. These experiences and mentorship will prove to be beneficial for your breast cancer research career.
- What message would you like to share with someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
I highly recommend reading Dr. David Palma’s book, Taking Charge of Cancer which goes through the steps of understanding your diagnosis, how to prepare for medical visits, the different treatment options you have and much more. This book serves as a great tool as it delves into topics starting from what is cancer to post-treatment care, thereby ensuring you are equipped with the necessary knowledge to make the best possible decisions about your care.