Improving Breast Cancer Treatment

Despite important advances in the early diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer continues to be a leading cause of mortality and disability for women.

For the past five years, Jasdeep Saggar, a PhD student in the Department of Medical Biophysics, supervised by Professor Ian Tannock at Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute (UHN), has been exploring how chemotherapy and a new anticancer drug can improve drug distribution in the breast cancer microenvironment.

“Chemotherapy is really good at targeting and killing rapidly growing cells that are close to blood vessels, but cells that are farther away may survive because they don’t receive enough drugs,” says Saggar.

In her research, Saggar honed in on the problematic cells that contribute to tumor regrowth, and found that they could be better targeted with a specific type of treatment: hypoxia activated pro-drugs. Reduced blood supply to tumor masses leads to decreased penetration of chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells in the hypoxic zones. As well, lower nutrient and oxygen levels cause tumour cells in hypoxic zones to replicate more slowly causing resistance to chemotherapies and radiation that target dividing cells. Hypoxia activated pro-drugs are designed to act specifically in these conditions. Combining standard chemotherapy with hypoxia activated pro-drugs resulted in increased cell death throughout the tumor.

Saggar’s groundbreaking research — and her ability to translate it in lay language for a broad audience — recently won her top honours at Ontario’s Three Minute Thesis competition.

The contest challenged graduate students from 16 universities across the province to present their complex research in an engaging and accessible way.

“It’s important to translate research discoveries because they serve the needs of human health and that’s what ultimately drives us to do innovative research. It improves health not just in communities here, but worldwide,” Saggar says.


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