Meet the Researcher: Nitara Fernando

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  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Nitara Fernando, and I am currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Medical Biophysics at Western University under the supervision of Dr. Paula Foster. Prior to this, I completed my Honours Bachelor’s degree in Medical and Biological Physics at McMaster University. I have always been interested in the intersection between physics and medicine, which inspired me to look into the medical physics field. While I was an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to work on a research project that focused on prostate cancer patients treated with a machine called a Magnetic Resonance Linear Accelerator. This experience deepened my understanding of the cancer and imaging fields, and ignited my passion for exploring the applications of physics in cancer treatment and imaging. Now, as a Master’s student my research is focused on cellular imaging of breast cancer. I am thrilled to be part of this dynamic field, where I can contribute to our understanding of breast cancer and make meaningful advancements.

 

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

Cancer has deeply affected my family, with four of my aunts and uncles, as well as my grandfather passing away due to the disease. My family members have fueled my passion for cancer research, specifically through the lens of medical physics. The opportunity to apply my problem-solving skills in physics along with my drive to assist those affected by this life-threatening illness serves as a constant motivation for my research.

 

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

Receiving the TBCRU Studentship Award is a great honour. With this funding, I can advance our understanding of breast cancer using a new kind of imaging called Magnetic Particle Imaging. In the future, this research has the potential to benefit those affected by the disease. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the breast cancer research field.

 

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

My research is focused on understanding how breast cancer grows and spreads. Tumour cells aren’t the only kind of cells that influence how breast cancer grows. Instead, breast cancer cells also take advantage of other kinds of cells and structures around them, which is known collectively as the “tumour microenvironment”. In my research, I’m interested in specific cells within the tumour microenvironment called tumour associated macrophages. Tumour-associated macrophages, or TAMs, have been shown to play a key role in disease progression in breast cancer, where having more TAMs can lead to poor patient outcomes. Thus, the presence of these TAMs can act as a biomarker for how aggressive a breast cancer is. The objective of my work is to be able to non-invasively image these TAMs in breast tumours. Specifically, we are doing this with a new imaging technology called Magnetic Particle Imaging (MPI). Fun fact: at Western University, we are lucky to currently have the only MPI scanner in Canada!

 

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

Since my project began, we have been able to make several advancements to our imaging techniques to show that we can in fact use MPI to image tumour-associated macrophages in different types of breast cancer mouse models, which is a first. We have been able to show that with a new advanced image reconstruction method, we can achieve high-quality imaging that addresses previous limitations we’ve seen when imaging TAMS.

 

  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? 

I have had the opportunity to present my work at a few scientific conferences this past year, including the Imaging Network of Ontario Conference, the Western Research Forum, London Health Research Day, and the Robarts Research Retreat. I am also excited to have won a second-place poster award at the London Health Research Day, and top pitch award at the Robarts Research Retreat. I have also submitted my work to the World Molecular Imaging Congress, which is taking place in September in Prague where I am looking forward to presenting my work to an international audience for the first time.

 

  1. If you received feedback following your presentation, how has it helped you and your research?

One of the reasons I love presenting my research is because of the opportunities to talk to other researchers and hear their ideas and feedback. The feedback I have received has provided valuable insights and perspectives, helping me identify areas of improvement in my methodology and findings. Not only has discussing my project with others sparked new ideas but it has allowed me to improve my presentation style and make my research more accessible to diverse audiences.

 

  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?

I hope that with my research, in the future we can overcome the need for a biopsy (a limited, and invasive procedure) for detection of tumour-associated macrophages and instead move towards the use of MPI to give us more information on the tumour microenvironment early in breast cancer patient diagnosis. For patients, this will impact our understanding of the disease and what types of treatment may work for certain patients using a personalized treatment approach.

 

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

This year, I organized a bake sale for the BCC Raise More Challenge along with my fellow TBCRU trainee Sean McRae. The support we received from our peers was astounding, allowing us to raise almost $700. Additionally, I had the opportunity to assist other TBCRU trainees in advertising an auction aimed at raising funds for the Raise More Challenge. It was fulfilling to contribute to these efforts and witness the collective impact our community can make in raising funds for Breast Cancer Canada.

 

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

When I’m not working in the lab, I love spending time outdoors. I enjoy going hiking and running or playing ultimate frisbee and spikeball with friends. I also love knitting and enjoy making myself sweaters and other clothing pieces.

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