Breast Cancer Society of Canada Written Blog Post Questionnaire 2022: Sean McRae
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself (i.e. name, current degree program/department, supervisor/lab, previous education/experience etc.).
My name is Sean McRae, and I am a second year PhD student in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University under the supervision of Dr. Timothy Scholl and Dr. John Ronald. I previously completed a bachelor’s degree in Medical and Biological Physics at McMaster University where I carried out a research project aimed at implementing new non- invasive imaging tools into radiotherapy procedures for breast cancer patients.
2. Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you, and how does it advance your research?
This is my second year receiving the TBCRU award, and it has continued to be a very important part of my research. The TBCRU Studentship Award directly funds my time spent in the lab doing research, and gives me a great platform to share and communicate my research. I am very thankful to be part of this amazing group for another year. 3. What is the objective of your research project and what problem(s) you hope to solve? My project aims to develop improved imaging technology to advance the study of breast cancer metastases in preclinical models. Animal models play a large role in the development of novel therapeutics before they are applied in the clinic.
4. In a few lines, please describe your research project.
I am continuing my work on a system for tracking breast cancer cells using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a powerful clinical imaging modality that gives detailed three- dimensional information in soft tissues. For MRI to be as effective in seeing small structures (such as clusters of 1000 cells) as it is with larger structures (entire organs), our lab has developed a tool that uses cell engineering to increase the visibility of cells using MRI. This is made possible through the engineering of cells to express a gene called OATP1B3. This gene allows cells to take up and retain an MRI contrast agent. We are currently investigating new and improved contrast agents which will allow for detection of smaller numbers of engineered cancer cells. We hope that with this effective and non-invasive cellular monitoring system, we will be able to follow breast cancer as it metastasizes in our animal models so that we can better understand the metastatic process and ultimately use this imaging technology for the assessment of novel treatments of metastatic disease.
5. Have there been any changes to or any advancements in your research since your project began?
Over the last year, I have made great progress on this project. Last year, we worked with our collaborators to develop five novel contrast agents that were specifically designed to be retained by our engineered cells, and we tested these new agents in cell experiments. This year, we have continued our experiments in animal models using specialized imaging hardware that we constructed in-house for these experiments. We are wrapping up our final experiments now and hope to publish this work in a few months.
6. Have you had an opportunity to present (or publish) your research to your peers or the broader research community? Was it at a national or international meeting or in some other way?
Despite some delays due to COVID-19, I am happy to say that I have had the opportunity to share my research to the broader research community. I am a co-author on a research paper that investigated tracking breast cancer metastases using MRI where I contributed to some of the image analysis. For my own research, I have given an oral presentation at the Imaging Network of Ontario’s annual meeting in March 2022, and I am excited to be presenting my research at the Future of Molecular MR, an international conference in Pasadena this summer!
7. If you received feedback following your presentation, how has it helped you and your research?
Hearing feedback following my presentations often sparks new ideas and generates new avenues for our group to explore. I am looking forward to in-person conferences where discussions like this can be held over coffee, often leading to new collaborations with other research groups with complementary ideas and capabilities!
8. How will your research be applied in the clinic or in a real-world setting? How will patients benefit from the results of your work?
The spread of cancer can often go undetected. My work aims to develop a system that can track the fate of breast cancer over time, to allow us to study the disease at early stages. To accomplish this, we need better tools that allow us to visualize biological events. In the short term, we are focused on refining our imaging technique to allow for the most sensitive non- invasive detection of breast cancer lesions. With the tools that we are developing, we hope to be able to track the fate of our engineered cells in response to various immunotherapies against breast cancer.
9. Tell us about your involvement in the Breast Cancer Society of Canada fundraising events (Dress for the Cause, Mother's Day Walk).
I have enjoyed participating in the Breast Cancer Society of Canada’s fundraising events, particularly the One Billion Steps Challenge and the Million Steps to Mother’s Day. This has been a great way for me to get my steps in while raising money for a great cause. I look forward to participating again in future events!
10. What are your hobbies? What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to outside of the lab?
Outside of the lab, I love to play my guitar in my band, Hyde Park. We are currently recording some new music that we are excited to release! This year, I also started volunteering with an organization called GTA Instrumentors that aims to remove barriers to music education. In this program, I get to mentor students for 10-week periods and help them learn the guitar.