With the use of cellular imaging, Paula Foster plays a sophisticated game of ‘I Spy’ by tracking the movement of cancer cells and treatments in the body.
As leader of the Cellular and Molecular Imaging program at Robarts Research Institute, Foster has developed imaging and cell labeling technology which uses ultra-high resolution MRI to detect cells labeled with magnetic nanoparticles, allowing her to pinpoint small cellular events in a patient and, potentially, detect cancerous lesions or tumours at an early stage.
“For cancers, things happen where cells come from the immune system to a site in the body where metastasis is going to form some day. They set up the environment, set up camp, to make the tissue more receptive for cancer cells, which is not a good thing, but that’s their job,” she said. “If we can detect something like that happening, then we may know where the metastasis is going to happen.”
This advanced MRI technology has enormous potential, with applications in a number of diseases and disorders, Foster added. Her lab also focuses on the use of these techniques to track stem cells used for tissue repair and regeneration.
“A lot of my research with cancer cell tracking is experimental, or pre-clinical. So, we’re doing this to try and understand cancer,” she said, adding she hopes to begin patient studies in the coming year. “We want to try and figure out what is happening and why metastasis is going on. Primary tumours rarely kills; metastasis kills people.”
Foster’s research was showcased as part of the Robarts Leaders in Innovation dinner this week, an event highlighting some of the institute groundbreaking research. Fellow Robarts scientist Aaron Fenster was also featured. Fenster has developed technologies that allow doctors to guide tools for diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer using 3D ultrasound.
Comedic actor Martin Short was one of the keynote speakers, who shared stories of how cancer has touched his life. He lost his mother, Olive, to breast cancer, when he was 17. In 2010, his wife of 30 years, Nancy, passed away at age 55 after a battle with ovarian cancer.
“The cancer journey probably touches every citizen of Canada. I had cancer in my life growing up as a kid and with my wife in the last five years of her life. So it’s been something that I’ve been involved in my entire life,” said Short, who spent part of the afternoon at Robarts to learn about the work Foster and Fenster are doing.
“The people involved in cancer (research) are always kind of the most remarkable people in any field of medicine to me,” he continued. “I didn’t ask everyone’s personal journey, but you know so much of it is tied to a loss of a parent, the loss of a sibling, the loss of a loved one. But I think the level of prevention being created at this university, the level of testing that can give patients the results so quickly, is a spectacular advancement, and Western is kind of leading the way. The genius that is being created is right here in Canada.”
Foster’s research will also be assisting physicians when it comes to immunotherapy treatments, which harnesses a patient’s own immune cells to attack a particular cancer. By labeling the immune cells with the same magnetic nanoparticles, she is able to view the cells’ journey through the body – in this case making it to the lymph nodes.
Foster said the lymph nodes are where there the cells – with the now added cancer antigen – interact with the T cells to inform and educate them on what cancer to be looking out for and how to start fighting.
Until now, there was no way to be certain injected cells made it to their destination.
“What happens in the clinic is, they take the cells out of a patient, prepare them in a way that makes them better for fighting the cancer and put them back in the patient. We are just adding a step where we add iron (to the cells) and we can then see them with the MRI,” Foster said. “The goal, when you inject the cells, is to get them to go to your lymph nodes. The docs who are doing it in clinic don’t know if they got there; the only way they know is from the outcome at the very end, and that’s it.
“When we talk to them (doctors) they ask, ‘Is it better to inject here? Should we inject twice?’ We’re trying to piece it all together, to determine if they want to try different strategies, different injection sites, different numbers of cells to be injected. We can now image the site and image the lymph nodes and see if they got there. We can see which causes greater migration. We can then provide instant feedback.”