The battle against breast cancer

Lakehead University is one of the most remote universities in Ontario, but even here in Thunder Bay, on the rugged northern shores of Lake Superior, ORION is helping to empower innovation. Dr. Alla Reznik is an associate professor of physics at Lakehead, a Canada Research Chair in Physics of Molecular Imaging, and winner of a 2016 ORION Leadership Award. She has been hard at work contributing to the development of an innovative method for breast cancer, helping to save lives and put Thunder Bay on the cutting edge of medicine. 


Alla Reznik

Dr. Alla Reznik

Current mammography technology detects breast cancer by using x-rays to identify malignant masses. But it has several drawbacks: it can be difficult to image dense breasts, and distinguish between malignant masses and benign ones. “As a result,” Dr. Reznik points out, “mammography produces a large number of false positive findings that trigger unnecessary biopsies, stress and anxiety for millions of women every year.”


The alternative method is called Positron Emission Mammography (PEM). It solves those problems by using molecular imaging to identify increased glucose metabolism in malignant tissues. “In other words,” Dr. Reznik explains, “PEM distinguishes cancerous cells from normal cells based on their different biological properties.”


PEM is able to identify small masses even in dense breasts, and it doesn’t require the painful breast compression mammography does — which means more women will be willing to get tested, more cancerous masses will be detected, and more lives will be saved.


It also means a boost for the economy of Thunder Bay. Dr. Reznik’s research has led to the creation of a new company, Radialis Medical, which will create jobs in the local innovation sector and has the potential to attract investors to the region.


As Dr. Vivianne Freitas, a radiologist at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre involved with the project, explains, PEM brings enormous benefits to Northern Ontario. “The development of PEM in our region means that we will be a pioneer, having a superior and modern technology — and the population will have the possibility of increased early cancer detection, giving them a better chance to be cured.”


ORION Leadership Awards, Alla Reznik, Eric Minoli, Sherry Fahim

2016 Leadership Award winners

The development of PEM has relied on interdisciplinary collaboration — and on digital support from ORION. The innovative project is only possible thanks to the work of highly-trained scientists and engineers from Lakehead, advanced technology from the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, and access to SHARCNET’s advanced research computing facilities through the ORION network.


Once PEM devices are in wide use, SHARCNET’s high-performance computing capabilities may also be used to process tumour images for diagnosis in real-time.


Thanks to Dr. Reznik, women all over Ontario — and the world — can look forward to a healthier future. It’s one more way ORION is empowering Ontario’s innovators wherever they are found.