From basic science to better patient care

June 18, 2018 by Dan Haves

Nancy Khuu, 2nd year PhD student, is passionate about pathology. Through her research in Professor Eugenia Kumacheva’s group, she’s exploring the chemistry of cancer biology. She hopes to eventually pursue medical education so she can translate her research into better care for patients.

Nancy recently presented her research at the 34th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Biomaterials Society in Victoria. Her presentation, "The Effect of Matrix Stiffness on Breast Cancer Response to Chemotherapeutic Drugs” won first place in the Poster/Presentation Awards. We spoke to Nancy about her research and her studies in the department of chemistry.

Tell us about the research that you presented in Victoria.

The extracellular matrix (ECM) is the non-cellular component present within all tissues and organs that provides mechanical and biochemical cues to cells. In breast cancer, it has been demonstrated that the ECM exhibits altered mechanical properties. In other words, the ECM is stiffer. The research I presented in Victoria is focused on understanding how this increased ECM stiffness affects breast cancer response to chemotherapeutic drugs. My results that I presented at Victoria demonstrate preliminarily that stiffer tissues are more resistant to chemotherapy drugs that target proliferating cells.

Where does this research go from here? What are you looking to explore next?

As my preliminary results show that stiffer tissues are more resistant to anti-proliferative drugs, I am interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that leads to this. From here, we are interested in performing RNA sequencing to investigate whether there are altered gene expression in cells grown in the stiffer matrix that lead them to become more resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs. 

What motivates you to do the kind of research you do?

In my undergraduate studies, I became passionate about pathology and the use of chemistry as a tool to better understand different diseases for translational applications. More specifically, I am interested in the use of chemistry to understand the different phenomenon in cancer biology. I find it incredible how new discoveries lead to more complex research questions and unexplored cancer phenomena. For me, it’s this continuous learning, and having the opportunity to explore these fundamental phenomena first-handedly, that I find so personally fulfilling and rewarding in my research endeavors. At the same time, I am motivated to pursue basic science to guide us towards better care and treatment for patients.

What’s life like in the Kumacheva Group?

In the Kumacheva group, everyone is incredibly motivated and dedicated to the work they do. At the same time, everyone is really friendly, supportive and helpful. We are a close-knit group whom love to spend time with one another whether it be through attending ChemClub events, going camping or going on food adventures. The collective result is an environment that is facilitative to learning, personal growth and building lasting relationships with a diverse group of individuals. You could say that we are the embodiment of the “work hard, play hard” motto. 

What keeps you busy outside of your graduates studies and research?

Outside of graduate studies and research, I am involved in the Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program in order to develop laboratory experiments and teaching tools to help upper-year undergraduates develop research-oriented soft skills. By doing so, I hope to help students bridge the gap between their undergraduate studies and a career in the sciences. I am also involved in the Women in Chemistry Toronto (WICTO) initiative in order to help promote gender diversity within the STEM field. Outside of these pursuits, I am an avid runner, hiker and coffee enthusiast!

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

As I am passionate about pathology, basic science and medicine, I hope to merge all these interests after graduation by pursuing a medical education in order to become a clinician-scientist. As a clinician-scientist, I look forward to practicing medicine at the patient level while conducting basic science research to contribute to the broader medical community.