- Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Urvi Patel and I am a second-year Masters student in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Western University. I am currently working under the supervision of Dr. Alison Allan. Previously, I completed an Honours BMSc with a specialization in Biochemistry and Cancer Biology at Western University in which I was able to explore my interest in cancer research. During my undergraduate degree, I was able to pursue a thesis project where I began working with Dr. Allan to investigate the mechanisms of breast cancer metastasis, and this experience exposed me to the breadth of cancer research being conducted in London. I am eager to contribute to the progression of this field with my own findings which led me to continue my project as a Masters student.
- Why are you passionate about the work you are doing, and/or do you have a personal connection to breast cancer?
My passion for cancer research began in high school where I learnt about cancer in biology class, a perplexing disease that did not have just one simple cause or cure and was still being investigated to address the gaps in knowledge regarding its diagnosis, development, and treatment. Hence, I chose to apply to Western University to pursue a specialization focused on cancer biology where I learned more about the disease from different perspectives including its genetics, cell biology, mechanisms of cancer treatments, translational models and more. This fueled my interest in oncology, and I was able to see how the research done at the lab could be translated into the clinic to make a significant impact on patient’s lives. I am hoping to apply my knowledge towards advancements in the field of breast cancer research to make a positive impact on clinical outcomes.
- Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you, and how does it advance your research?
I am thankful to have received the TBCRU Studentship Award. This award is important to me as it has given me the autonomy to pursue interesting experiments and freely expand my project aims to gain a better understanding of breast cancer metastasis. I have also received the opportunity to connect with other researchers that share an interest in breast cancer research who have provided me with knowledge to deepen my understanding of the disease. I have then been able to apply this newfound knowledge to the advancement of my own work which could not have been possible without this award.
- In a few lines, please describe your research project, including the main objective and what problem(s) you hope to solve.
Over 90% of breast cancer deaths result from metastasis, the spread of cancer cells to distant organs such as the brain and the lung. Triple negative (TN) breast cancer is a subtype of breast cancer that has a poor prognosis because it is highly likely to metastasize and one of the locations that it frequently spreads to is the lung. There is growing evidence that shows that cancer cells are able to release tiny particles, called extracellular vesicles (EVs) which can travel to other organs in order to make changes that will produce a favourable environment for those metastatic cancer cells to grow. One of the important cell types in the lung are endothelial cells which are responsible for forming new blood vessels that supply cancer cells with nutrients and oxygen to promote metastasis. Therefore, for my research project, I am exploring whether EVs released from TN breast cancer cells cause changes on lung endothelial cells to create a hospitable environment in the lung for metastasis.
- Have there been any changes to or any advancements in your research since your project began?
Since my project began, I have been able to test several different techniques for isolating EVs from different breast cancer cell lines. Interestingly, I found that different cell lines show differences in their EV production. We have also seen a trend of increased expression of some angiogenic markers in lung endothelial cells following treatment with unpurified TN breast cancer derived EVs. In the near future, I will be using purified EVs to validate these results and further explore their influence at the molecular and functional level on lung endothelial cells and metastatic behavior.
- 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?
Recently, I had the opportunity to present my research at Oncology Research and Education Day and London Health Research Day which were both held in London, Ontario. I am hoping to apply to a national or international conference later in the year to present my research to a broader audience.
- If you received feedback following your presentation how has it helped you and your research?
By presenting my research to other trainees and researchers, I have been able to receive valuable feedback regarding how to improve certain aspects of my project but also new directions that I could pursue to enhance the breadth of my project. During these interactive conferences, I answered questions regarding my research which has solidified my own understanding of the topic while also gaining perspective from scientists in other fields that are able to view my project with a different lens.
- 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?
This research project will help to improve our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that cause lung metastasis in breast cancer patients. With this knowledge, we hope to identify new biomarkers that could be used to predict lung metastasis at earlier stages when treatment is more effective, as well as identify new targets for therapy that could help reduce or prevent lung metastasis to ultimately improve breast cancer patient outcomes in the future. For example, our lab has explored strategies to interfere with EV production which could have implications in breast cancer lung metastasis.
- Tell us about your involvement in the Breast Cancer Canada fundraising events (Raise More Challenge, One Billion Steps Challenge).
Over the last year, I participated in the Raise More Challenge for breast cancer awareness month in October for which I advertised and contributed to a silent auction. I also donated and took part in the 5km Move-A-Thon/Walk-A-Thon for Mother’s Day. Both events helped to raise funds towards progressive breast cancer research.
- What are your hobbies? What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to outside of the lab?
Outside of the lab, I enjoy running, biking, and hiking. I am currently reading The Maid by Nita Prose and I just finished watching Demon Slayer. My favourite shows are Game of Thrones and New Girl.