A rising star in cancer research

Amid the hallowed and fabled walls of one of the world’s oldest universities, Vasiliki Economopoulos, BEng’08, PhD’13, is revelling in a life-changing milestone.
A current postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University, she is a recent recipient of the distinguished Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission.
This is an impressive feat at the beginning of the young scientist’s research career. The award is worth €180,000 (more than $240,000) for a two-year period and will greatly impact her research output, as well as her professional prospects.
“This award will leap me ahead by years, it’s an incredible opportunity,” said a thrilled Economopoulos, a former trainee at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
Economopoulos’ research focuses on secondary cancer tumours in the brain, known as brain metastases. She is specifically looking at the metastases that develop from an initial breast cancer diagnosis and is trying to understand the basic biology behind them.
Currently, brain metastases are one of the most difficult aspects of advanced cancers to treat. “Someone who develops a secondary tumour in the brain isn’t going to survive very long,” said Economopoulos. “At this stage palliative care is usually introduced to ease symptoms.”
With the Marie Curie Fellowship funding, Economopoulos will be investigating the significance of macrophages – scavenger cells recruited to sites of injury and cancerous tumours. She is hoping to establish the role these macrophages play in metastasis development, and if they contribute to tumour detectability.
The goal is to create imaging biomarkers that can be used to evaluate cancer cells and treatment in patients. There is also a possibility this research will determine targets for drug therapy, affecting how the brain supports cancer tumours.
“I’m really just trying to sort out what’s happening and why,” Economopoulos explained candidly.
One of the first students in the Molecular Imaging Program at Robarts, Economopoulos completed her doctoral training under supervisor Paula Foster, PhD.
Foster says she is extremely proud of her former student’s recent success. “It is very rewarding to see that the training Vasiliki received in advanced cellular imaging techniques at Robarts has led her to this very high level of success as a postdoctoral fellow,” said Foster. “This fellowship has the potential to catapult her into an independent research career.”
The theme of imaging also has a presence in Economopoulos’ personal life. Outside the lab, she dapples in photography. “I love the artistry in taking photographs,” she said. “I find it’s a good way to release from the structure of the lab and to take a break from high level scientific thinking.”
To fuel her creative passion, she joined the Oxford University photography society. “Basically we take photos and then go to the pub,” she said with a laugh.
After more than a year at Oxford, Economopoulos feels well-adapted to life in the UK.  The ‘American food’ aisle of her local Tesco, a British grocery store chain, still offers the Canadian a source of cultural amusement. But unfortunately it does not carry poutine, the Canadian culinary dish Economopoulos says she misses most.
And if all goes according to plan, this rising star may not taste the artery-clogging goodness of made-in-Canada poutine for some time. Her aspiration of setting up her own laboratory means she’ll most likely be crossing a few international borders – a career path that she embraces. “I feel that all doors are open,” she explained. “My next home could be anywhere in the world.”
Ultimately, her motivation in pursuing this career is the very research she applies herself to daily. 
“I want to get to the point where cancer isn’t a death sentence,” she explained. “My hope is that I can contribute to turning the disease into something manageable, something that won’t take away a person’s life so quickly.”