UPEI graduate student receives funding for breast cancer research

Congratulations, Miranda!
| Research
Miranda Steeves
Miranda Steeves

Miranda Steeves, a Master of Science student at the University of Prince Edward Island, is working on breast cancer research, with assistance from the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI). 

Steeves is a trainee in the Institute’s cancer research training program (CRTP), with $11,900 in funding provided by the Canadian Cancer Society’s (CCS) J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI)—Excellence in Cancer Research Fund.

She is working with Dr. Marya Ahmed, associate professor of chemistry at UPEI and a CCS Emerging Scholar Award recipient, to develop new approaches to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs that will lessen or potentially eliminate their nasty side effects. They are developing novel drug-delivery systems to ensure that anti-cancer drugs only reach and affect cancer cells and do not affect normal cells. Their approach to this delivery system relies on non-toxic food-grade materials that are well tolerated by cancer patients.

Steeves is investigating the use of starch and a biopolymer, which is a modification of a normal hormone called dopamine, as a delivery system for anti-cancer drugs in breast cancer patients. The idea is to chemically “capture” the drugs in natural materials, like starch, and then deliver the modified drugs directly to tumours, thereby avoiding unwanted interactions with non-cancerous cells within the patient. The starch-drug combination will be coated with the modified dopamine to aid in the delivery of drugs. Dopamine is chosen because in the presence of a light source, the hormone absorbs light and converts its energy into heat. The heat activation of the dopamine-coated starch particles not only releases the anti-cancer drugs to accurately deliver them to cancer cells, but the heat generated will also aid in killing surrounding cancer cells. This “one-two punch” by these chemically engineered “nano-robots” will aid in the treatment of cancer by providing two methods of treatment: accurate drug delivery directly to the cancer and localized heat generation lethal to nearby cancer cells. 

“Cancer research is especially important because so many people are affected by cancer,” said Steeves. With the help of research, we can not only improve the existing treatments but also develop new treatments. I would like to thank J.D. Irving and the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute for supporting me during my research program. With their support, I hope to make an impact with my research by improving breast cancer treatment to help patients in the future.” 

Breast cancer remains one of the leading cancers in women, with one in eight women predicted to be diagnosed during their lifetime. While early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer are essential for increased survival rates, the treatments can cause serious side effects. Cancers are typically treated using chemotherapeutic drugs, which are delivered intravenously directly into the patient’s blood stream. Because chemo drugs target all cells that divide (like cancerous cells), they attack other normal cells that also need to divide, including hair follicles and the lining of the digestive system, causing side effects such as hair loss and digestive problems, to name a few.

As reported in the Canadian Cancer Statistics: 2022 Special Report on Cancer Prevalence, Atlantic Canada has the highest cancer prevalence in the country, with breast cancer remaining one of the leading cancers in women. The partnership between CCS and JDI focuses on improving the cancer care experience and changing the course of cancer prevention and treatments in the region. Steeves’ research is the most recent among several local projects made possible by the Excellence in Cancer Research Fund with the potential to save and improve the lives of Atlantic Canadians who are living with and beyond cancer.  

“We are proud of our partnership with CCS and our support of UPEI, BHCRI, and researchers like Miranda Steeves,” says Jim Irving, Co-CEO of J.D. Irving, Limited. “Today’s announcement is an example of how our company’s ongoing investment in local communities and collaboration with great people and partners is creating positive change in the regions where we live and work.”

“Great progress has been made with cancer research, and we want to do our part to make sure the work to find a cure continues,” says Robert Irving, Co-CEO of J.D. Irving, Limited. “Atlantic Canada is home to many of our employees and their families. While the research will be done in Prince Edward Island, the discoveries will benefit everyone.”

The Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute, through its CRTP, provides trainees with access to a program designed to expose them to all aspects of cancer research. Along with Steeves, UPEI graduate students Olivier Philips and Mukhayyo Sultanova and postdoctoral fellow Rahimeh Rasouli are in the cancer research training program. The CRTP is open to graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinical research residents working with BHCRI members within Atlantic Canada. 

About the Canadian Cancer Society’s J.D. Irving, Limited—Excellence in Cancer Research Fund:
In 2021, J.D. Irving, Limited donated $2.5 million to the Canadian Cancer Society to establish the Excellence in Cancer Research Fund, affirming the company’s longstanding commitment to invest in research in Atlantic Canada. The fund will build, strengthen, and expand cancer research potential and capacity in the region, and it will ensure that the highest quality, most promising ideas and people are supported (based on a rigorous peer review process). This enables scientists to develop and continue their critical research in Atlantic Canada and contribute to the larger national cancer research landscape.

About the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute:
Created in 2009 through a bequest to the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute exists to foster a collaborative, productive, and capacity-building cancer research effort in Atlantic Canada. The Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute brings together a diverse community of cancer researchers in pursuit of a common goal: to save lives and ease the burden of cancer on individuals, families, and society. The Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute provides a meeting place for researchers to share ideas and forge new collaborations and offers a key entry point for students seeking training and careers in cancer research. Contact: Carla Ross, Executive Director (input@bhcri.ca)

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