Natasha Knier studies how breast cancer spreads to the brain

Natasha Knier studies how breast cancer spreads to the brain

1. Who are you? Tell us about yourself.

My name is Natasha Knier. I am a current Master of Science Candidate in Medical Biophysics at Western University, working under the supervision of Dr. Paula Foster at Robarts Research Institute. Prior to this, I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in the Honours Health Studies Co-op program.

2. Why is the TBCRU Studentship Award important to you?

As a first-year graduate student, I am very grateful to be chosen as a recipient of the TBCRU Studentship Award. Receiving this award has been tremendously helpful in funding important resources necessary for my project and has given me the opportunity to network with other trainees and connect with community members.

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

My project focuses on studying breast cancer that spreads to the brain. Previously, many investigators examining the spread of cancer have used cancer cells that are grown in a dish under artificial conditions. While these have been useful, they don’t represent patient tumours very well and aren’t suitable for evaluating new therapies.

Recently, the use of human tumours that are passaged directly in mice, called patient-derived xenograft (PDX) models have been used, as they have similar characteristics to the tumours seen clinically. In my project, we will study a patient-derived xenograft (PDX) model of breast cancer that spreads to the brain using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). By using MRI, we are able to successfully track which cells spread to the brain and die, which cells form new tumours, and which cells do not form tumours, but stay in the brain.

4. Why is your research important? How can your research be applied in the real world?

Our hope is that by studying breast cancer with PDX models, we can gain insight that is more clinically relevant and can inform future clinical applications and advance development in personalized medicine. Specifically, PDX models are being used to evaluate anti-cancer drug activity instead of using cell lines, since the properties of PDXs are similar to the original tumours removed from the patient.

5. What inspired your research?

My supervisor, Dr. Paula Foster, is a world leader in cell labeling technology and cell tracking with MRI and has used this technology to answer many research questions about cancer. Moving towards studying breast cancer using patient-derived xenografts was a way we could apply the imaging technologies already developed in our lab and obtain results that may translate better to what is seen clinically. We hope that by establishing these methods for the specific PDX model I am working with will allow us to continue this work and apply these techniques to study other PDX models of cancer in the future.

6. Why are you passionate about breast cancer research?

When I was looking into labs that I could begin my graduate studies with, it was important to me to work on a project that had significant clinical relevance and translation. After meeting with the Foster Lab, I was interested in the innovative work they were doing and how their technologies have influenced our understanding of breast cancer and where their work is going in the future. I also have several family members who have been affected by breast cancer, so I am thankful to have the opportunity to work on an important project that will potentially have an impact on the lives of others affected by this disease as well.

7. Why do you think breast cancer research matters?

Breast cancer, particularly when it has spread to the brain, is very aggressive and difficult to treat. With research, we can better understand this cancer and work on future treatments to improve the quality of life for patients.

8. What excites you about your work?

I am excited about working on a research project that can make a difference and truly puts the patient first. In particular, I am excited to work on applying the imaging technology that we use to address a wide variety of research questions related to breast cancer.

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

In the future, I would like to work on clinical research projects to develop therapeutic options for diseases like breast cancer. I am also passionate about scientific communication and would like to be a part of bringing research knowledge to members of the community.

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

Outside of the lab, I enjoy learning about fashion and photography, creating content on social media, playing music, and spending time with my dogs.

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

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