PhD student Javad Alizadeh is using innovative techniques, like three-dimensional bioprinting, to better understand how to prevent metastasis in lung cancer patients. He hopes his research could help to reduce the progression of lung cancer in Canadians with the disease, increasing their life expectancy.

PhD student Javad Alizadeh has always been fascinated by how cancer cells survive, develop and metastasize to other organs. Since leaving his native Iran for the Winnipeg in 2015, Javad has been focussing on how metastasis can be regulated in lung cancer at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Sciences.

Lung cancer is one of the most important causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide for both men and women. In 2018, around 28,600 Canadians were diagnosed with lung cancer, and this number is increasing every year. 14% of all new cancer diagnoses are lung cancer. An estimated 890 Manitobans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year—higher than 880 from last year—and 710 Manitobans will unfortunately die of the disease—an increase from 680 last year.

Lung cancer diagnoses represent an estimated 14% of all new cancer diagnoses; lung cancer is also the number one reason for cancer-related death in Canada.

In cases of lung cancer, metastasis occurs when cancer cells escape the lung to invade other organs. The leading cause of death in lung cancer patients is metastasis to other organs like kidneys, the liver and the brain. “There is an urgency for us as cancer researchers to conduct more research,” Javad explains, “and to come up with approaches to prevent, or at least limit, the metastasis in these patients so that we can increase their life expectancy.” 

Before metastasis can occur, changes happen within the cancer cells that allow them to move much more easily through the body. Most importantly, there are often changes to the way that the powerhouses of the cell, known as mitochondria, are regulated—particularly the way that the damaged mitochondria are removed from the cells.

This process, called mitophagy, has tightly regulated mechanisms and has critical role in many cancers. The first part of Javad’s PhD thesis project examines how mitophagy affects the escape of lung cancer cells to other organs, and how this process is controlled in lung cancer cells through other cellular pathways. 

Javad Alizadeh’s research focuses on how to prevent the spread of lung cancer cells to other organs.

Although animal models have traditionally been used to research cancer, issues including interspecies variations, cost and ethics can present problems. For the second half of his research, Javad hopes to develop a new way to study how cancer cells escape from the lung using a revolutionary new technology: three-dimensional bioprinting. 

This method would better mimic the real environment in which cancer cells reside. Javad plans to create lung tumors that are far more realistic than the stiff, flat plastic surfaces normally used to study cancer cells. By studying how removal of damaged mitochondria is regulated within these realistic lung tumors, Javad aims to better understand how we might be able to prevent metastasis in lung cancer patients.

Structure of mitochondria in a lung cancer cell line (A549) under transmission electron microscopy; Stained mitochondria in lung cancer cells (A549) using a selective red dye (MitoTracker).

His research could be an important step on the road to developing new treatments that target the removal of damaged mitochondria and prevent the escape of lung cancer cells to other organs. This has the potential to reduce the progression of lung cancer in Canadians with the disease, increasing their life expectancy.

University of Manitoba PhD student, Javad Alizadeh, aims to better understand how we might be able to prevent metastasis in lung cancer patients.

Outside the lab, Javad is an active member of his community. He helps to organize fundraising initiatives and events as a volunteer for CancerCare Manitoba, where he works to support the wellbeing of cancer patients. Javad has also represented his fellow students both as a former councillor at the Health Sciences Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Manitoba, and as group representative to the Dean’s office for the Molecular Biology Research Centre in Iran. Before moving to Winnipeg, Javad ran for 2 years as Staff Advocate during his employment at the prestigious Pasteur Institute of Iran. 

Outside the lab, Javad volunteers with CancerCare Manitoba, is an active member of student government, and enjoys a good game of tennis.

Javad hopes the findings from his doctoral thesis could pave the way for development of new therapeutic approaches that target mitophagy, which might prevent metastasis to other organs in Canadian patients with lung cancer. “We need to accelerate our research efforts,” Javad explains, “and we need to engage more people in taking action to reduce their cancer risk.” He hopes that his research will play a part in creating a world where ultimately, health care professionals won’t need to deal with the metastasis in the first place.

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