February 13, 2023

What does breast cancer have to do with heart disease?

A trainee takes research from inception to publication to examine how cancer cells impact the heart

By Marina Giovannoni*

Abrar Alam is currently a student in the MD program at the University of Alberta and completed two WCHRI summer studentships.

Please tell us about your research.

The reasons women with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing heart disease hasn’t been well established. It was previously thought that heart disease could result as a side effect of chemotherapy. However, through imaging of the hearts of breast cancer patients prior to initiating chemotherapy, we found that there were already existing signs of cardiac injury. To explore this, we hypothesized that breast cancer tumours release something that can negatively impact the heart. Being involved in this project from its inception to publication was a very interesting opportunity to look at the interaction between two seemingly separate diseases.

What activities made up your day-to-day work for this project?

Since the project involved trying to identify how cancer cells impacted heart cells, much of my time was spent performing animal and cell culture studies. We looked at protein and gene expression of key markers in breast cancer and how they differed between experimental groups. After collecting the data, I used statistical tests to make sense of it. Once we put everything together, I enjoyed presenting our work at conferences.

What has been the most interesting or unexpected experience in your research journey so far?

Many molecular biology protocols are quite sensitive and require constant optimization to get reliable and valid data. After some trial and error (along with help from my mentors), I was able to perfect the techniques specific to our study. Experiments don’t always give you the results you expect, either. Troubleshooting this involves a thorough understanding of the existing literature. Doing this allowed me think of backup plans along the way, which made the process flow smoother.

What drew you to pursuing a career in medicine?

I started off developing an interest in physiology from my courses. From there, I had the privilege of volunteering in clinical settings such as the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, where I was able to interact with both patients and their family members. The experience made me realize that suffering extends beyond the patient themself. I also volunteered with the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Together, these experiences gave me a taste of both the clinical and administrative side of medicine.

The final thing that really influenced me was research. Medicine today is fundamentally different than it was 50 years ago, and it’s fundamentally different than it will be 50 years into the future. Much of that is thanks to advancements made in research. To be a part of something like that is an honour. As a clinician, you will work with a limited set of patients throughout your lifetime. However, the ability to do excellent quality research can further extend your impact for generations to come.

What impact on clinical medicine do you see your work having for breast cancer patients?

Currently, our supervisor is meeting with a clinical research team and industry partners to see if the work we’ve done can be advanced to clinical trial stages. I think that the cutting-edge advancements in this field of research gives reason for patients and their families to be optimistic for the future.

What are your plans for your career over the next few years? And how has your time as a trainee set you up for your career path?

I am in medical school, so my goal is to become a clinician. I’ve decided that I also want to do research. WCHRI has been instrumental in providing opportunities for me to get further involved and hone my research skills through lunch talks, meeting with other fellow trainees, sharing research and, of course, presenting. The dissemination of research is integral to academia.

Abrar Alam is supervised by Jason Dyck. His summer studentship project is funded by Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

*Marina Giovannoni is a member of WCHRI’s Trainee Advisory Committee (TAC). Additional members from TAC who contributed to this story include editors Luis Fernando Rubio Atonal, Robert Mcweeny and Kaya Persad, with videography and photography by Robert Mcweeny.