Violet Liu is developing a preventative therapy for breast and skin cancer.

Violet Liu is developing a preventative therapy for breast and skin cancer.

1. Who are you? Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Violet Liu. I am a first-year M.Sc. student in the Department of Biochemistry at Western University, working under the supervision of Dr. Eva Turley at the London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP). Previously, I graduated from Western University with an Honors Specialization in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

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

I am so grateful to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada for their support of my Studentship Award through TBCRU. This scholarship award has been critical for leveraging funding that helps me conduct important experiments for my research project.

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

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women. It can often spread to other parts of the body, which then requires intensive therapy and can result in a higher risk of recurring cancer and mortality rates. Moreover, radiation to treat breast cancer often comes with the risk of developing other forms of cancer. Therefore, developing a preventative therapy targeting breast and skin cancer is essential.

The potential for new therapies is provided through an experimental model called the naked mole rat. In these animals, the natural presence of high levels of a complex sugar called hyaluronan (HA) has cancer resisting properties. With this knowledge, we wanted to investigate the cancer-resistant potential of HA, and designed a topical formulation containing a modified version of this ingredient, called HA-PE. We showed that HA-PE penetrated the skin and prevented UVB-induced skin tumours. Through this project, we aim to identify the mechanism of this cancer protection and translate these findings to reduce breast cancer initiation and mortality in patients.

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

Further understanding of HA-mediated cancer resistance will further contribute to the current understanding of breast cancer initiation. Moreover, this knowledge will provide the basis for future developments in both targeted and preventative therapies of both breast and skin cancer, thus reducing the fatalities and healthcare costs associated with both diseases. HA is also implicated in other forms of cancer (i.e. prostate, colon, and ovarian cancer). Therefore, the topical formulation containing modified HA may be a potential preventative strategy that could be repurposed to prevent various other cancers in at-risk populations.

5. What inspired your research question?

Previously, our lab showed the HA-PE cream has anti-ageing effects. As a pioneer in the field of polysaccharides and the patent holder of HA-PE, Dr. Turley hypothesized that the benefits of topically-applied HA extend past anti-ageing. She came up with the core research question of this project - to see if the beneficial effects of HA can be translated into breast and skin cancer prevention.

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

When I was 17, my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. As a breast cancer survivor, her experience motivated me to focus on investigating the mechanism behind initial tumour development and cancer prevention. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work on my current project.

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

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancerous death in women, with a dismal 5-year survival rate if cancer spreads. Developing effective preventions and treatments is essential. Breast cancer research expands the pool of knowledge for breast cancer initiation, allowing researchers and medical professionals to develop more effective, personalized treatments for patients. Knowledge of breast cancer can also aid in preventative measures of at-risk populations, thus reducing morbidity and mortality rates due to breast cancer.

8. What excites you about your work?

It is very exciting to be a part of a venture that constantly pushes the frontiers of knowledge. I am especially excited to know that this research may one day develop a preventative method that can make a difference in patients’ lives.

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

I am planning to apply to an MD/Ph.D. dual degree in the future and continue to work on translational cancer research projects. I also hope to specialize in the field of oncology.

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

When I am not in the lab or writing, I like to paint, spend time with friends and volunteer at the hospital in the chemotherapy unit. I also have an interest in history and philosophy.

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