The Triple Negative Breast Cancer Battlefield

The Triple Negative Breast Cancer Battlefield

New Tools for Testing Therapies

How do we attack an enemy we can’t even see? This is the challenge doctors and scientists face when they come head-to-head with Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). This subtype is called “triple negative” because it lacks any of the three principle markers found on other forms of breast cancer: the estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) receptors. These receptors act like beacons, and by design, therapies are given according to the “receptor status” of the breast cancer because of each treatment’s power to locate and attack that beacon.

Nivin Nyström is a 2nd year PhD candidate working as part of the Medical Imaging Laboratories at Robarts Research Institute conjoined with the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University, supervised by Dr. John Ronald and Dr. Timothy Scholl. Equipped with a background in genetics and physics, Nivin is working out a new way to image Triple Negative Breast Cancer for preclinical testing of candidate therapies. “It’s very frustrating,” says Nivin, who had an opportunity to discuss the issue with oncologists at the Canadian Cancer Research Conference this past year. “You can take a biopsy, and under a microscope, see that it’s triple negative breast cancer. But there’s nothing you can give the patient to specifically target that cancer, which is particularly concerning if it’s spread to other regions in the body.”

For women with TNBC, there are no targeted therapies clinically available, and as a result, general regimens of chemotherapy and radiation are assigned. To combat the lack of targeted treatments, Nivin’s research is building a “genetic tag” system that works to make triple negative breast cancer cells appear bright on clinical MRI systems for real-time dynamic monitoring of therapeutic responses. Currently, measurements in living models are very difficult to make, and rely on metrics that unfortunately introduce a lot of ambiguity into the data. This new TNBC-enhancing MR imaging tool hopes to remove a significant portion of that uncertainty, so that we can one day find an effective treatment against this obscure disease.

Support researchers like Nivin Nyström and others 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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