SFU pushes envelope in breast cancer research

October 18, 2006, volume 37, no. 4

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Pioneering research in radiation therapy and cellular manipulation at SFU is pushing the envelope in breast cancer research and could help improve patients' quality of life.

Karim Karim, an assistant professor of engineering science, is developing low-noise, high-quality digital X-ray imagers to help Sunnybrook Health Sciences in Toronto treat women diagnosed early with breast cancer.

Sunnybrook has developed the ability to implant microscopic ‘seeds' emitting low-level radioactive rays in breast tissue. Once the seed implantations, which could be as many as 80, have spent all of their radioactive energy, they are inactive.

Karim's imagers, which he hopes to have ready for patient testing in 2010, would enable doctors to use Sunnybrook's radioactive seeds to directly encircle a tumour.

Conventional imaging technology can only approximate the location of a tumour through multiple X-rays and exploratory operations.

Karim notes his collaboration with Sunnybrook "could reduce the cancer treatment time and radiation-induced skin reactions of women with early-diagnosed breast cancer."

Sharon Gorski, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, is trying to discover how a cellular process called autophagy works.

This process guards cells against intrusion by foreign chemicals, including medicine, and that gets cells to clean up after themselves. During their lifetime, cells degrade and recycle parts of themselves repeatedly.

"We believe that this process may play a role in making cancerous breast tissue resist treatment," says Gorski, an SFU grad researching breast cancer at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Genome Sciences centre.

"If we can get cells to let down their defenses at our command, it may improve the therapeutic response of breast cancer to drugs such as chemotherapy."

Speaking of control, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry Lynne Quarmby suspects that renegade cilia help instigate uncontrolled cellular division, leading to malignant growths such as breast cancer.

Cilia—tiny hairlike structures—are the eyes and ears of almost all cells, helping them make decisions, such as whether or not to divide, based on their environment.

"Our lab is working on understanding how dysfunctional cilia cause out-of-control cell division and ultimately kidney disease. We think that the same process may be involved in the development of other proliferative diseases, such as breast cancer."

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