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Julia Gevaert Is Tracking How Breast Cancer Spreads

1. Who are you? Tell us about yourself.

My name is Julia Gevaert. I am an MSc candidate in the Medical Biophysics program at Western University, under the supervision of Dr. Paula Foster. I completed my undergraduate degree at McMaster University with an Honours BSc in Medical Physics. Learning about different imaging techniques sparked my interest in how we can use images to understand better diseases such as breast cancer and the way it spreads.

2. Tell us about the importance of receiving a TBCRU Studentship Award supported by the Breast Cancer Society of Canada.

As a recipient of the TBCRU studentship award, I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute valuable research towards breast cancer. Holding this award reminds me that the research we are doing matters and relates to patients in a meaningful way. I am honoured to be supported by TBCRU, so I can fully dedicate my time and effort to developing new models to track breast cancer.

3. Tell us about your research. What are you doing, and what problems do you hope to solve? 

My research looks at how we can use a new imaging technique, Magnetic Particle Imaging (MPI), to track breast cancer if and when it spreads throughout the body. Specifically, I am studying the spread (or metastasis) of breast cancer to the lungs. This is very difficult to image using other techniques, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Since MPI is new, I am developing methods to label, detect, and track breast cancer cells to better understand how and why secondary tumours begin to grow in the lungs. Currently, I am looking at different types of iron nanoparticles that we can use to label cells and test to see which ones will be optimal for MPI.

4. Why is your research important? What are the possible real-world applications?

Very little is known about breast cancer metastasis to the lungs since it is very challenging to image using MRI. We know that macrophages (a specific type of white blood cell) play an active role in promoting tumour growth and development and are strongly associated with poor outcomes in breast cancer treatments. Being able to track these macrophages as they spread to the lungs will help us understand the development of secondary tumours in the lungs. This will be useful for effective treatments, since dormant cancer cells may lead to cancer recurrence. MPI offers ways to overcome the limitations of MRI by being able to image cells more accurately.

5. How did you come up with your research topic / what inspired your research question?

Breast cancer survival rates are quite high for patients with Stage 1-3 cancer; before any evidence of metastasis. That survival rate drops drastically as soon as cancer starts to spread to other areas of the body. Understanding how and why metastasis happens could help in the development of better treatments, helping to prevent more tumours from growing and recurring cancer from dormant cells.

6. Who or what got you interested in breast cancer research?

One of my first research experiences was focused on breast cancer. I was mentored by another TBCRU recipient when I was at McMaster University. She was working on using X-Ray Diffraction to diagnose breast cancer. That project resonated with me because it showed me how research can be directly related to helping patients and how meaningful breast cancer research is. Since then, I became heavily involved in medical physics, which is what led me to join the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Group at the Robarts Research Institute.

7. Why do you think breast cancer research matters or is important?

Breast cancer research matters because it affects everyone– those who battle with it, their families, and their friends. It is the most common cancer in women worldwide, and treatments are tough to go through, both physically and emotionally. Research is a team effort, and it offers so much support to those going through it. Treatments and medical care are continually evolving and improving. Research provides a sense of community and comfort that people are working hard in the hope of a cure.

8. What excites you about your work?

There are so many exciting things in this field. I think it’s incredible that we can track single cells using MRI and study how they form into tumours. I think it’s really cool that we can accurately label cells and monitor tumour growth. It’s inspirational to think about how far we’ve come in the last 50 years with the development of imaging technologies, and how much more there is to discover.

9. What do you see yourself doing in the future? 

In the future, I hope to continue with a Ph.D. in Medical Biophysics and pursue a career as a clinical medical physicist.

10. What do you like to do when you aren’t working on research?

Outside of research, I enjoy staying active by playing squash and hiking. I also volunteer with Let’s Talk Science to get youth excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. If I still have extra time, I like baking.

Support researchers like Julia Gevaert by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit today.