Bringing clinical perspective to the lab

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By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Ashley Makela, PhD Candidate, was half-way across the world when she caught the research bug.

Working in radiology at a hospital in the United Kingdom, she realized the need for better tools to diagnose and treat cancer.

“Seeing cancer patients progress from diagnosis through to treatment and remission, it made me want to pursue research and make a difference,” she said. “And in the clinical setting, I was able to see the impact and importance of research translation.”

The aspiring researcher applied to Paula Foster’s lab at Robarts, encouraged by the innovative work Foster, PhD, was doing with cancer imaging.

As a trainee with the Department of Medical Biophysics, Makela’s research project focuses on tumour-associated macrophages (TAMs) in breast cancer. These type of cells promote tumour growth and metastasis, and can make up to 50 per cent of the overall tumour mass.

Using cellular MRI, Makela is able to track the TAMs non-invasively. This novel imaging technique requires the injection of a contrast agent, either iron-oxide or florine-19, to detect the cells.

The research may impact how cancer treatment decisions are made in the future. “The aim is to differentiate between tumours that are aggressive, that may metastasize readily, and tumours that may not need aggressive treatment,” Makela explained. “We can use this information to aid in detection, prognosis and treatment evaluation.”

“I like the technical aspect of this research, combining biology and engineering,” she added. “It keeps me on my toes.”

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Makela completed a degree in medical radiation science at the University of Toronto. From there, she joined the workforce, taking a position as an ultrasonographer and radiation technologist at a hospital in Kenora, Ontario, before setting off on her overseas adventure.

“Having work experience gives me a unique perspective,” she said. “And it’s huge motivation knowing first-hand how my research may help cancer patients in the future.”  

Makela’s work has received an impressive collection of awards and accolades – among them, the Translation Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) studentship, the A.C. Groom Award and the Dean’s MSc Transfer to PhD Scholarship for Graduate Research.

“When I think of all the outstanding research projects in my field, I’m amazed I stand out,” said the young researcher. “I’m so honoured to be recognized.”

She credits the research environment at Robarts with helping her succeed. “For my research, it’s essential to be at Robarts, with access to the best scientists and research equipment,” she said. “I’m very lucky to be in such a special place.”