It was in Dr. Patrick Lee’s lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology that Dr. Paola Marcato was first introduced to cancer biology.
It was 2004, and she had just come to Dalhousie University as a postdoctoral fellow, having finished her undergraduate and PhD training in cell biotechnology and bacteriology. For the next eight years, Dr. Marcato worked with Dr. Lee, fostering her interest in cancer research, and developing a passion to make a difference for the millions of people who are affected by cancer every year.
Initially focused on oncolytic virus, a virus that can kill cancer cells, she soon began studying what would become her career’s focus—breast cancer.
Now, more than a decade later, Dr. Marcato has been appointed the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF)-Atlantic Region Endowed Chair in Breast Cancer Research Chair.
Established in 2008, this position was made possible through an endowed chair from the QEII Foundation and is housed in the Departments of Pathology, and Microbiology & Immunology at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine. The CBCF Chair will provide Dr. Marcato with the opportunity to work with local, national, and international programs and organizations to develop a collaborative research program encompassing cancer genomics and cancer immunotherapeutics.
For Dr. Marcato, who established a research lab focused on breast cancer in the Department of Pathology in 2012, it’s a chance to be a leader and resource to others.
“It’s about translating basic research into clinical care and helping other breast cancer researchers build their cancer research programs,” says Dr. Marcato.
“This chair position should be someone who is a leader and a resource that others can call on.”
As chair, Dr. Marcato will be well positioned to bring people together and contribute to the overall understanding of and treatment of breast cancer. Her unique expertise in studying aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme associated with cancer cells that make them very difficult to kill, has led to international funding and a reputation of excellence.
Leading the fight
Improving therapeutic strategies to combat metastatic and therapy-resistant breast cancer is critical, because while the primary disease or the tumour is not what leads to mortality, if often comes back, spreads throughout the body and is resistant to other previous treatment. New therapies that will combat and stop the metastasized cancer from spreading are needed, and Dr. Marcato is at the forefront of this search.
“Our generous community of donors support QEII Foundation endowment funds as a means to secure long-term research positions,” says Susan Mullin, president and CEO at the QEII Foundation.
“Endowed chairs are dedicated to accelerating life-changing healthcare advancements and we’re proud to have Dr. Marcato’s experience and expertise lead the way in breast cancer research.”
Dr. Marcato is expanding her research in immunotherapy-based strategies, which were recently approved by Health Canada as a treatment for an aggressive advanced form of breast cancer. This type of therapy stimulates the immune system to kill cancer cells, and while it shows a lot of promise, there are still many treatment-resistant patients. Dr. Marcato will work to determine how to potentiate this immunotherapy response so that it works optimally for more patients.
A new inspiration
With Dr. Marcato’s appointment comes a new inspiration to translate her research into clinical care.
“I feel very honored and humbled to be appointed to this role, and I feel I have a duty to work even harder,” she says. “With an honour like this, you have to do the best you can or else you’re not living up to the opportunities that come with the position.”
In the next five years, Dr. Marcato hopes to see some of her research applied in clinical settings in the care of patients with breast cancer. Her work on non-coding RNA, which has been shown to play an important role in cancer and other diseases, has significant potential for future clinical translation.
“By identifying non-coding RNA that are important to breast cancer growth and spread, we can target them to enhance the immunotherapies that are now being used in breast cancer,” says Dr. Marcato. “I think that's one of the next big areas you're going to see in cancer therapy.”
Supporting tomorrow’s leaders
Dr. Marcato has made significant strides from her humble beginnings as a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University with a budding curiosity in cancer biology. The CBCF Chair in Breast Cancer Research will elevate her work and provide further opportunities for engagement with collaborators and the next generation of researchers, something she says is especially important in her new role.
“It's so important to support future generations of researchers, so that there will be many more trainees who we can pass the torch to, who will keep answering those questions and keep trying for new discoveries.”
The newly appointed CBCF Chair in Breast Cancer Research is ready to give back to her community, and stands as a pillar of support, ready to provide expertise to all who seek it.
“Dalhousie, and their partners, including Nova Scotia Health and the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Institute, as well as the larger Atlantic region, is a great research community to be a part of. It’s been my experience that my colleagues are always willing to share expertise and resources, which makes advances in research possible. I encourage others to not be shy, and to just to ask for help, because help is there.”
With leadership and collaborative efforts, we can aspire to a future where breast cancer is conquered, and lives are saved.