1. Who are you? Tell us about yourself.
My name is Olivia Sehl. I am a MSc candidate in the department of Medical Biophysics at Western University. I work at the Robarts Research Institute under the supervision of Dr. Paula Foster to conduct research for breast cancer diagnosis using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In 2018, I graduated from Western with a Bachelor of Medical Science with an Honors Specialization in Medical Biophysics.
2. Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you?
I am sincerely grateful for the support from Breast Cancer Society of Canada (BCSC). This financial support is crucial to help with the fees associated with supplies and technology needed for this research. We are very thankful that we don’t have financial restrictions, so that we can pursue our breast cancer research to the fullest.
3. Tell us about your research. What are you doing and what problems do you hope to solve?
I am studying immune cells called macrophages that promote the growth and spread of breast cancer. Our research aims to develop a technique that helps to detect these cells using MRI. Macrophages can be seen with MRI when they take up an imaging contrast agent, and we observe them at various times throughout tumor development. Currently I am using a drug that gets rid of macrophages in order to monitor how this affects the growth and spread of tumours, and to detect these changes with a type of imaging called fluorine-19 MRI.
4. Why is your research important? How can your research be applied in the real world?
Fluorine-19 MRI will allow us to answer key questions about the role of macrophages in breast cancer. With this technique, we will be able to see macrophages in the tumor and macrophages that are helping the cancer to spread. This is useful for breast cancer detection and to monitor tumor aggressiveness over time. Members in our lab have recently started to use this technique for with a human clinical scanner. We are excited that this approach could be used to macrophages in cancerous tumours during patient diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
5. What inspired your research?
I am very fortunate to be continuing the work of Ashley Makela, PhD., a previous BCSC-funded trainee and student of Dr. Paula Foster. She was very instrumental in developing and demonstrating the ability to detect macrophages in breast cancers with fluorine-19 MRI. As the next step, Dr. Foster and I wanted to experiment whether this technique would be capable of detecting the depletion of macrophages, as would happen with some anti-cancer therapies.
6. Why are you passionate about breast cancer research?
My initial interest was cardiac imaging. My undergraduate research involved the concept of imaging macrophages with MRI, for patients developing heart failure. Now as a graduate student, I have transitioned imaging macrophages in breast cancer. Fluorine-19 MRI is an emerging tool for this and has strong applications for breast cancer diagnosis because of the number of macrophages present. My interest was sparked by Dr. Makela and Dr. Foster when they showed that aggressive breast cancers can be distinguished using fluorine-19 MRI.
7. Why do you think breast cancer research matters?
The development and spread of breast cancer can be extremely dangerous, yet preventable if detected early. It is critical that there is constant effort to better diagnose, treat, and monitor this disease. Although our research is designed to look specifically at breast cancer right now, our techniques may eventually work for imaging other types of cancer too.
8. What excites you about your work?
I am excited about exploring the unknown. Almost every experiment comes with surprises that require further investigation—the answers to our research questions are not found on Google. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only team in Canada focused on fluorine-19 MRI cell tracking. Dr. Paula Foster is an incredible mentor and she treats her students as colleagues. I am thrilled to exchange ideas in this environment and to know that my ideas are valued. I feel privileged to be in a position to try things that have never been done before.
What is really inspiring is how MRI technology has progressed over the past 4 decades. The first human MRI was only conducted in the late 1970s and is now the gold standard for many clinical tests. I am excited to witness the recent developments in MRI technology and believe in its future success. I am very hopeful for fluorine-19 imaging as a diagnostic tool for breast cancer.
9. What do you see yourself doing in the future?
I aspire to contribute to both science literature and clinical practice by studying breast cancer imaging. I will start by attending international conferences. In the upcoming months I am pleased to be presenting at Imaging Network of Ontario (IMNO) and the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM). I hope to learn from world-renowned imaging scientists and start collaborations with practicing clinicians.
10. What do you like to do when you aren’t working on research?
You can find me skiing at Beaver Valley Ski Club or adventuring at my family cottage!
Support researchers like Olivia Sehl by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate