Meet the Researcher: Harjot Athwal

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  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Harjot Athwal, and I am a first-year MSc student in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Western University. I’m currently studying breast cancer research under the supervision of breast surgeon and clinician-scientist Dr. Armen Parsyan and senior cancer scientist, Dr. Alison Allan. I previously achieved an Honours BMsc in Biochemistry and Cancer Biology at Western University where I first started my breast cancer research journey by completing a senior thesis project that looked at the combination treatment of radiation with a drug in breast cancer. Now, as a graduate student, I am thrilled to be able to carry on my studies in breast cancer research and hope to make a positive contribution to breast cancer research and care.

 

  1. Why are you passionate about the work you are doing, and/or do you have a personal connection to breast cancer?

My initial interest in breast cancer started with my paternal grandmother who was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. Thankfully, the cancer was only in the early stages of progression and was able to be successfully removed with surgery. Through this experience, I became aware of the emotional pain and financial struggle that was put on my family. This made me wonder why cancer affected the lives of so many individuals and what I can do to help to alleviate this suffering. Naturally, this experience led me to complete an Honours BMsc in Biochemistry and Cancer Biology, where my interest in cancer research grew. As a woman of colour, I have been striving to make a positive contribution to the health of women, including those from equity-deserving groups by understanding this deadly disease that affects so many in my community. I am realizing this passion of mine through my MSc studies where I am studying the effects and mechanisms of new treatment approaches for breast cancer patients.

 

  1. Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you, and how does it advance your research?

The TBCRU Studentship Award supports my research pursuits of being able to improve outcomes in patients suffering from breast cancer, a deadly disease that affects 1 in 8 Canadian women. This award not only allows me to perform the experiments I need to pursue my goal but allows me to connect with senior breast cancer scientists and clinicians and apply their knowledge to my own project. Hence, I am very grateful to be a recipient of this award through the generous support from Breast Cancer Canada and their donors.

 

  1. In a few lines, please describe your research project, including the main objective and what problem(s) you hope to solve.

Triple-negative breast cancer is the most aggressive subtype of breast cancer and current treatments for this deadly disease are not very effective. One common treatment for these patients is radiation therapy, which uses high-energy radiation to kill the breast cancer cells. However, damage to normal tissue and resistance to treatment are some of its drawbacks. My project looks at combining radiotherapy with a new anti-breast cancer drug called CFI-400945 that targets a protein called Polo-like Kinase 4 (PLK4), which is involved in regulating cancer growth. Our previous studies have shown that the combination of radiation and CFI-400945 is more effective at killing breast cancer cells than either treatment alone. For my project, I aim to understand how this occurs. By understanding how this combination is killing breast cancer cells, we can translate our findings into a more clinical setting where this combination treatment could be used to treat breast cancer patients.

 

  1. Have there been any changes to or any advancements in your research since your project began?

Yes, since I started my project in September 2022, I have learned various molecular and cellular biology techniques to study how cells respond to the treatment of radiation, CFI-400945 and its combination.  I have demonstrated that that PLK4 is expressed in multiple breast cancer cell lines and that cells treated with the combination stopped growing in the middle of the cell division cycle, leading to breast cancer cell death. I am currently carrying out experiments that will allow us to assess the broad changes in gene expression of breast cancer cells that occur in response to treatment with the drug, radiation or their combination. This will help provide a blueprint of how radiation and CFI-400945 are causing breast cancer cell death, which will move us one step closer to our goal.

 

  1. Have you had an opportunity to present (or publish) your research to your peers or the broader research community? Was it at a national or international meeting or in some other way?

As a first-year MSc student, I recently presented my research at Western’s Surgery Research Day as well as Oncology Research and Education Day. Both conferences were held in London, Ontario in June, 2023, and presenting my work allowed me to get effective criticism from peers and senior scientists on how I can improve certain aspects of my project. I also won a presentation award at Surgery Research Day for this research, which was exciting! Later this year I plan to submit applications for national and international conferences where I hope to present my research to the broader breast cancer research community.

 

  1. How will your research be applied in the clinic or in a real-world setting? How will patients benefit from the results of your work?

My research is trying to understand how radiation and CFI-400945 kill breast cancer cells, which will help reveal pathways and proteins that result in breast cancer cell death. Currently, CFI-400945 is in early clinical trials looking at its effectiveness in breast cancer patients. The results from my research will help progress these clinical trials and the eventual use of this combination to the clinic where it is expected to directly benefit breast cancer patients and help reduce breast cancer-related deaths. Our study will also inform us about potential new biomarkers for drug and radioresistance and will help develop new treatments and therapeutic approaches for breast cancer.

 

  1. Tell us about your involvement in the Breast Cancer Canada fundraising events (Raise More Challenge, One Billion Steps Challenge).

I participated in the Raise More challenge in October 2022 for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and in the Mother’s Day Walk-A-Thon in May 2023, where I donated and walked 5km in support of Breast Cancer Canada and their initiatives. I look forward to participating in future fundraising events organized by Breast Cancer Canada to help promote breast cancer research.

 

  1. What are your hobbies? What are you currently reading, watching or listening to outside of the lab?

I loved the Game of Throne series as well as their prequel series, House of the Dragon. I also enjoy going on walks/hiking through trails in the summer and doing puzzles all year long.

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