Cancer survivor takes virtual tour of cancer research centre

Mary Buie gets ready to take part in the CIBC Run for the Cure in 2020.

KAGAWONG – Due to her outstanding support of last year’s (and past years) Canadian Cancer Society CIBC Run for the Cure, Kagawong resident Mary Buie has reached the CIBC level 3 fundraising reward level and was invited to attend an exclusive virtual lab tour hosted by one of the ground-breaking breast cancer researchers at the Canadian Cancer Society. 

“It was fabulous,” stated Ms. Buie last week, after having taken part in the virtual lab tour at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal earlier this month.

The following is a report Ms. Buie provided to the Recorder after the tour. “Recently I had the pleasure of being virtually with a researcher and his assistant and learned a little of what they are and have been doing for over 25 years together. I was one of 1,447 participants of 2020’s first virtual Run for the Cure for breast cancer research who had raised over $1,000 each. We were invited to a life meeting with them virtually and it was fascinating!

“$9.3 million dollars was raised in 2020 from Run for the Cure. Researchers may get some government funding but they rely heavily on private and fund-raised donations. The Canadian Cancer Society has funded Dr. William Foulkes $900,000 over the last 20 years. Because of work done through research, 88 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer survive at least five years beyond diagnosis.

“Dr. Foulkes works from the research institute of McGill University Health Centre in Montreal and is recognized internationally for his work on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer and has won many prestigious awards. This is the science of genetics in cancer treatments. He is not an oncologist but is dealing with the part of the story-why did this happen?
“He investigates whether our genetic structure is a factor in why we get breast cancer. The genes we inherit from our parents may influence what type of cancers we get. Knowing the genetics can affect our subsequent treatment. What genetic events led to breast cancer and maybe metastasis. This event would have happened years before the diagnosis because it can influence why the cells become cancerous. He identifies mutants in certain genes. Today, because of technology, data can be analyzed much faster and cheaper. He hopes that all women diagnosed with breast cancer would be offered this genetic test. We need to know what variants are important in cancers.

Mary Buie

“We were then taken into the lab where Dr. Foulkes and his assistant Nancy Hamel work through photos. Nancy explained and showed us their usual work regime and the tools, machines and computer technology that they use. It is very repetitive methodical work that has to be meticulous. They are working with very tiny amounts of DNA. They are using the PCR machine which is the same technology to detect the COVID virus. Machines and computers do a great deal of the research work so although COVID has prevented researchers and scientists from being in their labs, the rest of the analysis can be done. 

“We have heard a lot about these -80°C freezers needed to store some of the COVID vaccines. These low temperature freezers are used to store sensitive biological specimens and enzymes. Many, many hours of research work is spent looking at a lot of data files on different types of computers in different facilities. A lot of basis lab work is relevant to being able to produce vaccines against COVID-technology is transferable. You are looking at molecular biology. There is a universality of all of this for cancer research, infections, COVID etc.

“Questions had been sent in after the virtual tour had been completed. One has to do with what recent strides have been made for triple negative breast cancer. This is very near and dear to me as this was my diagnosis in 2012. This type of breast cancer was first isolated in 2005. By 2020 this has been highly researched. There is now a much deeper understanding and therefore better treatment as there are different variants. It can be very aggressive and can reoccur early but not later on. 

“You need to look for circulating tumour DNA in the bloodstream. If you know this is happening you may be able to target it. Studies in Toronto now are trying to diagnose early events of reoccurrence.

“Another question raised is how has COVID-19 impacted research? I have already mentioned loss of lab time. We were told that there will be cuts in funding for research because the cost of COVID. There will be even more need for fundraising and private funding. Of course, we are always hearing lack of PPEs! Gloves are in short supply; are back ordered and more expensive.”

Ms. Buie said the tour hosts mentioned that with any research “we need to think strategically and long term as results of 2020 are not published until 2021-2022. So COVID will very much affect the future.”

“In terms of what is coming up in terms of cancer treatments, we were told that immunotherapy is the word and is a real game changer,” Ms. Buie continued. “It will hopefully be the biggest heavy lifter for kidney, melanoma and lung cancers.”

“Now there is an RNA vaccine for COVID and it has been produced safely, thoroughly researched and trialed in six months. This has never happened before. Vaccines have been the way to eradicate certain diseases; could we find vaccines against certain breast cancer mutations before they cause cancers?

“This was an absolutely fascinating tour that I spent learning much more about research and cancers. I hope you the readers will find it interesting as well. It gives hope for all of us who have or are journeying with cancer.”