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Breast cancer and other women’s cancers

For my last post, I want to talk about some of the work we’re doing in collaboration with the BC Cancer Agency’s ovarian cancer research program, OvCaRe . Back in 1896, a Scotsman named George Beatson became the first doctor to treat breast cancer patients by removing their ovaries. This was a very crude treatment, especially considering the state of surgical techniques at the time, but it actually worked for some patients. We now know that this is because some breast tumours are fueled by female hormones — like estrogen — that are made in the ovaries. Of course, we’ve come a long way since...

My lab’s research focus

I promised to tell you about some of the projects we’re working on at the moment and how they fit into our overall goal of getting the best possible breast cancer treatments to the right patients at the right time. We have so many different projects on the go. It’s impossible to cover everything, but I hope I can explain the big picture of how all the different components connect to each other and to our overarching goal. There are many steps involved in developing a new drug and deciding which patients will benefit the most from it. The very first is to identify what we call “druggable...

What is Life?

In memory of Anita Cochrane. What is life? Almost 70 years ago, Nobel prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger asked that question in an essay. His short book provoked a large number of physicists and chemists to move into the field of biology, thus sparking the revolution in science that came from the discovery of the genetic code. In 1953, a profound moment of discovery in human history occurred when we learned how the information for life is encoded — in the sequence of DNA chains inside the cells that make up all living organisms. We know that cancer starts at the cellular level —...

What does a breast cancer researcher do?

As you might imagine, leading the BC Cancer Agency’s breast cancer research program keeps me very busy! And I’m not the only one: my lab, located in the BC Cancer Agency’s Research Centre, is full of students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians working away on their research projects. In the office areas nearby, teams of programmers and statisticians are busy analyzing the massive amounts of data we produce every day. On a typical day, I’ll meet with several members of my team, as well as other principal investigators from the BC Cancer Agency, to discuss our current research. I’ll also...

What’s in store for functional cancer imaging?

We’ve been fortunate to have PET/CT imaging for patients with suspected or diagnosed cancer for the past five years. However, demand has been growing, not only because the population is aging and the incidence of cancer is increasing, but also because PET/CT scans are increasingly recognized as an essential part of routine cancer care. To improve access to PET/CT scans in British Columbia, the BC Cancer Foundation is raising funds to purchase a second PET/CT scanner. The Provincial Health Services Authority and the BC Cancer Agency have committed to provide the operational funding, and the...

Functional Cancer Imaging research

Another part of my work is to lead an active research group on “Functional Cancer Imaging.” The purpose of my research is to improve and develop new methods to detect and characterize cancers by using tumor-seeking probes instead of simply looking for tumour masses using conventional means. Part of this includes evaluating which patients gain the most benefit from PET/CT scans performed using radioactive glucose . This is something we already use in the clinic and we are looking at means to improve the current procedures. I also conduct clinical trials to see how we can improve clinical care...

Radiopharmaceutical facility officially opens!

I’m excited because yesterday we officially celebrated the opening of the cyclotron and the radiopharmaceutical facility at the BC Cancer Agency’s Centre of Excellence for Functional Cancer Imaging. It’s an impressive space (6,000 square feet), and at its core is the cyclotron I mentioned in my previous post. This facility is important because we can now produce our own radioisotopes to perform PET/CT scans. We are grateful for the support TRIUMF has been providing until now, but being able to produce our own radioisotopes is an important step forward in our use of functional cancer imaging...

Remembering Sindi Hawkins

As you may have heard, yesterday we lost our dear friend Sindi Hawkins. Sindi was a champion, an ambassador and a leading light for the BC Cancer Foundation and for the cancer cause. Without a doubt, Sindi made a difference in the lives of many cancer patients and their families. Sindi became a cancer advocate and fundraiser long before her own diagnosis with the disease. She created the Sindi Hawkins and Friends Charity Golf Tournament to help fund the opening of the BC Cancer Agency’s Centre for the Southern Interior – which has now been re-named in her honour. She helped fund the first-...

Radioisotopes and cancer imaging

Performing PET/CT scans is not simply a matter of purchasing a machine and installing it into a hospital room. We must produce the very short-lived radioactive tracers (radioisotopes), which we use to detect cancer, in close proximity. Since they are radioactive, these tracers disappear spontaneously very quickly, within a matter of minutes to hours. While this short time frame can pose logistical hurdles, it is ultimately a good thing, as we can make useful images without harming patients since the radioactivity goes away very quickly. In addition, we don’t leave any radioactive byproduct...

What’s a PET/CT scan?

As a nuclear medicine physician, I help patients by reading a special type of scan to detect cancers called a PET/CT scan. PET stands for “positron emission tomography” while CT stands for “computed tomography.” A PET scan is extremely sensitive — it can measure tiny amounts of radioactive material that show how organs function, all the way to the level of molecules and cellular biochemistry. By using trace amounts of glucose (sugar), which the cells (including tumours) metabolize, it has been shown that PET scans are so sensitive, they detect even small cancers. A PET/CT scanner The CT scan...

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