Haweater receives Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation fellowship

TORONTO—Haweater Ashleigh Wiggins is one of 20 recipients in all of Canada to have received a fellowship from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to continue her work in cancer research. She has a special interest in research that focusses on the use of compounds in one’s diet as complementary to breast cancer therapies.

“My project is to do with the diet and people with cancer and things that they can do on top of treatment—basically complementary cancer treatment,” Ms. Wiggins told the Recorder last week. “What we are hoping to do with this project is look at ways to allow the reduction in the number of chemotherapy treatments a breast cancer patient has to undergo, and help to cease adverse side affects of someone who is taking cancer treatments.”

Ms. Wiggins, who was born and raised on the Island, having first attended Central Manitoulin Public School and Manitoulin Secondary School (the latter with honours) went on to get her Bachelor of Science Degree in Biomedical Toxicology with Distinction from the University of Guelph in 2011.

“I started my Master of Science Degree in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto in May 2011.”

As for the fellowship from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, “they are providing funding for me for one and a half years to complete my breast cancer research project. I had applied last October and the fellowship review panel, which consists of several experts in the field, met in February and March 2012 to review all applications and granted me the fellowship. I began the fellowship in July 2012 and will complete it and my Masters degree by December 2013.”

“My research project focusses on the use of compounds in our diet as complementary therapies currently used and is the focus of the research done in our lab,” said Ms. Wiggins. “I am currently conducting in vitro (cell culture) work studying the potential decrease in growth of breast cancer cells by using an omega-3 fatty acid from flaxseed oil, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and to understand the mechanism of how exactly it works.”

“The project also aims to make advances in the personalization of complementary breast cancer therapies as I am studying the effect of ALA in five different breast cancer cell lines that each have different characteristics corresponding to the four main subtypes of breast cancer,” said Ms. Wiggins. “What works on one cell line may not work on another, which is currently one of the big hurdles to overcome in breast cancer therapy. For example, a patient diagnosed with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer may have a different response to ALA than one with estrogen receptor negative breast cancer. The project also takes into account the difference in pre and postmenopausal status by using both high and low estrogen environments, which has been shown to alter effectiveness of treatments.”

“Everyone has been affected or have had someone they know who is affected by cancer,” said Ms. Wiggins. “This is something I am very interested in, and looking at one’s diet after the disease starts. I became very interested in cancer and how our diet may play a role in both the promotion and prevention/treatment during the final year of my undergraduate degree in Guelph, and was lucky enough to find an expert in the field (Dr. Lilian Thompson) willing to supervise me for my Masters degree.”

“My supervisor here in Toronto is an expert in diet-cancer research, especially breast cancer,” continued Ms. Wiggins. “I had applied for the fellowship in October 2011 through the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation,” she said. Experts evaluate all the applications, research being done, and marks posted as well as volunteer experience. “It’s a program we have to work with in teams and provide updates on research done every three months, and they (CBCF) get you involved in the community, delivering talks to organizations and groups on the work you are doing.”

“In the last couple of months my research has been coming along well. There are a couple of new techniques I’m working on,” said Ms. Wiggins. “It is long hours and at times frustrating but in the end I hope all of this works out. The University of Toronto puts a lot of money and resources into research—it is a top-notch facility. And the fact that we have cancer patients right across the street in a hospital provides another base for incentive in the research I and other students are carrying out.”

“I am hoping to continue in the area of cancer research after the completion of my Masters degree,” said Ms. Wiggins. This past spring she had the opportunity to write two book chapters with a fellow PhD student in her lab on the topics of diet and cancer prevention and treatment that are being published early next year.

Ms. Wiggins also noted, “I have been volunteering with both the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society since moving to Toronto, and last fall was on the organizing committee for the Canadian Cancer Society Put Cancer on Ice Hockey Tournament.”

Tom Sasvari