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A passion for breast cancer research

From left, Drs. Cathy Popadiuk, Sheila Drover and Jane Green are all involved in breast cancer research. By Sharon Gray

While keenly aware of the importance for state-of-the-art breast cancer diagnostic tools and treatments for patients in Newfoundland and Labrador, research into this devastating disease continues to be exceptionally important to three members of the Faculty of Medicine. They not only do research on breast cancer, but they are involved with the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance (CBCRA), which held its fifth scientific conference, Reasons for Hope, in Vancouver at the end of April.

Dr. Cathy Popadiuk, a gynecologic oncologist, is a board member of the CBCRA, and genetic researcher Dr. Jane Green sits on the organization’s research advisory committee. Immunology researcher Dr. Sheila Drover was also invited to the conference to make a presentation on some of her basic research funded by the CBCRA. Dr. Green also made a presentation on the identification of breast cancer mutations in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The three women are enthusiastic about the alliance, and speak highly of its role in ensuring that breast cancer research is a high priority for government funding.

“This is a huge, dynamic group of individuals and what is really special about it is that the survivor community is represented heavily in everything the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance does,” said Dr. Popadiuk.

Among survivors at the April conference were Julie Bettney, a former cabinet minister and member of the House of Assembly; Nina Burford of Labrador City, who co-chaired the session on metastasis; and retired faculty members Dr. Pat Roberts and her husband Dr. Roy West, a past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Division of the Canadian Cancer Society.

As an immunologist, Dr. Drover’s work is most affected by the current shortage of pathologists since some of them have directly contributed to her studies on the immune response in breast cancer patients. “I started off studying an association of histocompatibility molecules with autoimmunity and wondered if the same molecules affected the immune response to cancer.” Some of Dr. Drover’s research in this area has been published. She said this would have been impossible to accomplish without her longtime research assistant, Dianne Codner, and her graduate students – especially Dr. Sharon Oldford – and pathologist Dr. Desmond Robb, now deceased. Her current focus is examining how the immune system sometimes makes a desirable response while in other cases turns on an immunosuppressive response.

“We are analyzing the expression of histocompatibility molecules on the breast tumour cells, and the types of T-cells directly in breast cancer.”

Dr. Green’s work in hereditary cancer research deals with genetic linkages and finding mutations in high risk families in collaboration with molecular geneticist, Dr. Terry-Lynn Young. “My role is collecting records so we have a proper clinical description of families,” said Dr. Green. The actual pattern of cancers besides breast cancer may be quite different – for example, some families have a significant amount of ovarian cancer, others gastric or duodenal cancer. We need that information to develop clinical screening protocols for members of each family.”

When high risk families are identified the genetic material, DNA, is studied by Dr. Young who has found 15 different mutations in the breast cancer families they have studied. Each family has a different mutation. “There is minimal founder effect seen, unlike in hereditary colorectal cancer where we have identified clusters of families with the same mutation,” said Dr. Green.

Using basic science concepts found in the lab, Dr. Popadiuk has teamed up with Dr. Ken Kao of the Terry Fox Cancer Research Laboratory to study cancer problems she was encountering in her clinic. “Dr. Kao and I received funding to examine a molecular mechanism common to both breast and ovarian cancer,” she explained. “Those data have now been published, highlighting the hard work of our team, including research associate Phillip Andrews and grad student Mark Kennedy.” Other researchers in the Division of BioMedical Sciences – Drs. Laura Gillespie, Gary Paterno and Ken Hirasawa – are also funded for breast cancer research.

The three researchers all emphasize the important of funding from organizations like the CBCRA not only for research but for training new young scientists. Partners in the Canadian breast Cancer Research Alliance commit at least $1 million dollars per year for five years towards breast cancer research.

These partners include the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Breast Cancer Network and the Avon Foundation.