Alumna, a rising star in cancer research, nabs elite fellowship

Special to Western News

A current postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University, Vasiliki Economopoulos, BEng’08, PhD’13, has been awarded the distinguished Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission. The award contributes more than $240,000 over two years toward her research on secondary cancer tumours in the brain, known as brain metastases.

Amid the hallowed and fabled walls of one of the world’s oldest universities, Vasiliki Economopoulos, BEng’08, PhD’13, is revelling in a life-changing milestone. A current postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University, she is a recent recipient of the distinguished Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission.

This is an impressive feat at the beginning of the young scientist’s research career. The award is worth more than $240,000 over two years, and will greatly impact her research output, as well as her professional prospects.

“This award will leap me ahead by years,” said Economopoulos, a former student at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Economopoulos’ research focuses on secondary cancer tumours in the brain, known as brain metastases. She specifically explores the metastases that develop from an initial breast cancer diagnosis and tries to understand the basic biology behind them.

Currently, brain metastases are one of the most difficult aspects of advanced cancers to treat. “Someone who develops a secondary tumour in the brain isn’t going to survive very long,” Economopoulos said. “At this stage, palliative care is usually introduced to ease symptoms.”

With the Marie Curie Fellowship funding, Economopoulos will investigate the significance of macrophages – scavenger cells recruited to sites of injury and cancerous tumours. She hopes to establish the role these macrophages play in metastasis development, and if they contribute to tumour detectability.

The goal is to create imaging biomarkers that can be used to evaluate cancer cells and treatment in patients. There is also a possibility this research will determine targets for drug therapy, affecting how the brain supports cancer tumours.

“I’m really just trying to sort out what’s happening and why,” Economopoulos said.

One of the first students with the Molecular Imaging Program at Western’s Robarts Research Institute, Economopoulos completed her doctoral training under her supervisor, Medical Biophysics professor Paula Foster.

“It is very rewarding to see the training Vasiliki received in advanced cellular imaging techniques at Robarts has led her to this very high level of success as a postdoctoral fellow,” Foster said. “This fellowship has the potential to catapult her into an independent research career.”

The theme of imaging also has a presence in Economopoulos’ personal life. Outside the lab, she dabbles in photography.

“I love the artistry in taking photographs,” she said. “I find it’s a good way to release from the structure of the lab and take a break from high-level scientific thinking.”

To fuel her creative passion, she joined the Oxford University photography society. “Basically, we take photos and then go to the pub,” she said with a laugh.

After more than a year at Oxford, Economopoulos feels well-adapted to life in the United Kingdom. The ‘American food’ aisle of her local Tesco, a British grocery store chain, still offers the Canadian a source of cultural amusement. But unfortunately, it does not carry poutine, the Canadian culinary dish Economopoulos says she misses most.

And if all goes according to plan, this rising star may not taste the artery-clogging goodness of made-in-Canada poutine for some time. Her aspiration of setting up her own laboratory means she’ll most likely be crossing a few international borders – a career path she embraces.

“I feel that all doors are open,” she said. “My next home could be anywhere in the world.”

Ultimately, her motivation in pursuing this career is the very research she applies herself to daily.

“I want to get to the point where cancer isn’t a death sentence,” she said. “My hope is I can contribute to turning the disease into something manageable, something that won’t take away a person’s life so quickly.”