Sean McRae is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Medical Biophysics. He is conducting BCC-funded breast cancer research under the mentorship of Dr. Timothy Scholl and Dr. John Ronald at the Robarts Research Institute/Western University.
- Could you share your motivation/personal connection to breast cancer research?
Like many of us, I have witnessed the impact of breast cancer on close friends and family. As one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among Canadians, there is an ever-growing need for improved detection and treatment methods for patients. I am motivated every day by being part of an amazing research team that shares a common goal. We want breast cancer patients to know that we have their backs, and we are tirelessly fighting for their futures. This is what motivates me as a researcher.
- What specific areas of breast cancer research are you currently focusing on, and why are they important?
My current research focuses on applying novel imaging tools to better understand breast cancer progression and its response to immune cell therapy. Specifically, I’m working on using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track cells in preclinical models. MRI is an incredible imaging tool in the clinical setting as it can generate impressive images using powerful magnets and without harmful ionizing radiation. By modifying a cell’s genetic information, we can make them more visible on MRI, allowing us to gain a better understanding of how cancer responds to different immune cell treatments. While our tools are still in the exploratory preclinical stage, we are excited about their potential for patients.
- What recent breakthroughs or discoveries in Canadian breast cancer research are exciting to you?
The use of cell therapy for targeted breast cancer treatment is truly exciting and holds great promise for breast cancer patients. The ability to harness the body’s own defenses to fight cancer rather than relying on external sources is a captivating prospect. Modifying immune cells to express a specialized receptor known as a chimeric antigen receptor, or “CAR,” enables these immune cells to specifically recognize markers found on cancer cells, increasing the likelihood of targeting and eliminating them. Immune cell therapy is currently showing promise in its early stages of development, and we hope that by applying our imaging tools to track these cells, we can better understand how to utilize them for treating breast cancer patients.
- What advice do you have for young individuals interested in pursuing a career in breast cancer research?
Breast cancer research is a highly rewarding field, though it comes with its fair share of challenges. The best research is conducted when we bring together people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to solve complex problems. When I joined my research group, I was concerned that my physics background and lack of biology lab experience might hinder my progress, but it has actually become a strength in my work. The primary requirement for being a great researcher is a passion for making the world a better place for our patients.
- In your opinion, what role can public awareness and advocacy play in advancing breast cancer research and treatment?
Increasing public awareness can help stimulate conversations about the importance of supporting research, a critical part of the fight against breast cancer. While we are fortunate to live in a country that values research, there is still room for improvement. As we continue to advocate for the importance of funding breast cancer research, another critical aspect is raising awareness about the role of early detection in improving breast cancer patient outcomes. As an imaging scientist, I am optimistic about the future thanks to the constant development of new imaging technologies. However, these advanced imaging tools can only benefit the public if people are aware of them.