Trainee Q&A: Charmainne Cruje, PhD Candidate

Charmainne Cruje, PhD Candidate, is bridging the gap between medical imaging and nanotechnology. Cruje is completing her doctoral work with the Department of Medical Biophysics and is co-supervised by Robarts scientist Maria Drangova, PhD, and Elizabeth Gillies in the Department of Chemistry at Western University.

In this Q&A, she discusses her current research project, her clinical background and her decision to return to academia.

What does your research focus on?

I’m focused on developing a contrast agent with nanoparticles. 'Nanoparticle' seems to be a buzz-word these days – it simply means a particle sized in the nano-scale. Contrast agents in nanoparticle form are used in pre-clinical studies, and we also use them for drug delivery. They can be designed to localize specific tissues, which is useful in imaging and drug therapy. We don’t have a nanoparticle-based contrast agent that is usable for specialized techniques in micro-CT imaging. And that’s what I’m currently developing.

With the Gillies lab, I’m developing the nanoparticle. And with the Drangova group, I will be applying it to medical imaging in small animal models. The project is very hands-on – I develop and synthesize the contast agent, and then image and observe the animal models injected with the agent.

My research involves both medical imaging and nanotechnology at the same time – I feel that I’m bridging that gap with my project.

What is the potential impact of your research?

In general, I want to be able to visually separate the vasculature from the rest of the body in micro-CT imaging. Any tissue in the body relies on blood supply, so being able to image the vasculature will be key to solving many disease questions. By applying the contrast agent I’m developing to specialized micro-CT imaging, we'll be able to image the smallest vessels in live animals in approximately fifteen minutes.

I’m also interested in multi-modal imaging using contrast agents, as well as creating multi-functional nanoparticles – meaning we can use nanoparticles to provide contrast in imaging, to deliver drugs and to monitor the progress of treatment. That’s a very big ambition though, for down the road.

What is your education and research background?

I completed my undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Toronto. As a student, I got the chance to work at the Carlo Fidani Regional Cancer Centre in Mississauga. Fortunately for me, I was then able to secure a full-time position in same cancer centre as a physics associate. So in general, my background is in radiation therapy.

I wanted to move my career forward by pursuing a master's degree at Ryerson University. During my graduate studies there, I demonstrated that gold nanoparticles can be modified to target cancer cells and increased cell death due to radiation therapy.

What motivated you to return to academia and pursue a doctoral degree? And what appealed to you about training at Robarts?
Medical biophysics is a very interdisciplinary field, and a lot of the leaders in the field trained at Robarts and Western. I’ve learned so much in the past few years at Robarts. And I have everything I need here – the accessibility to resources is so helpful, and all the experts are in one building.
With this PhD, I hope to increase my qualifications and open career doors in industry, academia or health care. As a trainee, I want to maximize my experience here and make the best use of this environment and my program. I hope to be a much better scientist after I graduate.