1. Who are you? Tell us about yourself.
My name is Melissa Evans, and I’m a first-year Masters’s student in Medical Biophysics at the Robarts Research Institute under the supervision of Dr. John Ronald. I previously got my Bachelor of Science at the University of Waterloo in Honours Biotechnology/ Economics co-op. During which, I also spent two co-op terms in the Ronald lab.
2. Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you?
The TBCRU Studentship Award is important because it allows me to dedicate more of my time to what really matters in my project, focusing on the research. I was honoured to be a recipient of this award along with the other exceptional trainees all working towards the same goal in so many different areas of the field. Although the COVID-19 pandemic makes it more difficult, I hope to share my work and educate people on the current research at the various Breast Cancer Society of Canada events.
3. Tell us about your research. What are you doing and what problems do you hope to solve?
My project involves developing imaging tools for tracking personalized cancer-fighting cells. A new type of treatment called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell therapy involves sampling a patient’s immune cells (T cells) and taking them into the lab to modify them with a CAR. This CAR gives the T cells the ability to target and kill breast cancer cells once transplanted back into the patient. A lot of excitement surrounds the use of CAR T cells for many types of cancer, including breast cancer, but two limitations are their safety and our inability to know where the CAR-T cells are going in the body after they are delivered back to the patient. My project uses a unique approach to modify these cells with special imaging markers, which will allow us to track the CAR-T cells with different imaging machines such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). I will then test our cells in pre-clinical models of breast cancer to see how well we can visualize the cells, where they go in the body over time, and how well they treat breast cancer.
4. Why is your research important? How can your research be applied in the real world?
My work is important because it could lead to a safe way of editing the T cells to create a novel, sensitive and specific method to image and track CAR-T treatments. This system would also be used to track and image the cells with widely available medical imaging technologies such as PET and MRI. We hope that these cells will be able to be tracked in the body and effectively kill breast cancer cells, thus providing insights to improve the CAR-T cell therapy in breast cancer patients.
5. What inspired your research?
Cancer treatments are developing rapidly. Previously, our lab became interested in developing methods for imaging CAR-T cell therapies to inform this treatment progress better. In monitoring the fate of CAR-T cells engineered to fight breast cancer cells, we want to test a new system of editing these cells that poses minimal risk to patients. We are inspired by the opportunity to significantly improve the understanding of how the CAR-T cells are functioning in the patient’s body.
6. Why are you passionate about breast cancer research?
I have always been curious about science. If someone tells me about a scientific breakthrough that they read about, I want to know how it works. I am always making notes of and looking up unfamiliar things people tell me about. What draws me to this research is that breast cancer as a topic is so complex and challenging. Scientists are constantly discovering new phenomenon about breast cancer that leads to the development of new treatments.
I think most people can say that cancer has touched their life, whether it be a relative or a friend. Cancer has touched the lives of my family and friends more than once and given the opportunity to work on a project that could help breast cancer patients and beyond, I jumped at the chance that what I do could someday help provide insight into treatments and more hope to breast cancer patients.
7. Why do you think breast cancer research matters?
Advances in cancer treatment don’t always happen in leaps and bounds. It is the daily work of people like me and the other recipients of TBCRU studentship awards that push the field forward. Investing time in breast cancer research to improve different areas of the field, including imaging for therapy tracking or developing new treatments, provides hope and a more positive outlook for those affected by breast cancer.
8. What excites you about your work?
Knowing that researchers are working around the clock to make progress against breast cancer and improve patient outcomes, it excites me that I get to be a part of that process. The idea that one day my work could help clinicians better understand these treatments and enhance them also motivates me. One of the coolest things to me is that my work could also be altered for different cancer types or imaging different treatments beyond breast cancer and CAR-T cells.
9. What do you see yourself doing in the future?
In the future, I hope to combine my unique undergraduate degree in biotechnology and economics. I love being involved in multidisciplinary fields and continually pushing myself to learn more from those around me with different expertise. I hope to be able to be involved in the medical biophysics or biotechnology fields, whether it be in research in academia or industry.
10. What do you like to do when you aren’t working on research?
When I am not doing research, I coach and play ringette and soccer or any sport I can get out and play with friends. My family loves hiking, so when not in COVID times, I try to go on trips with them and explore some new trails! I also love cooking and trying different recipes, usually with my own twist.