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Dalhousie early career scientist one of eight to receive national funding

Posted by Lindy Isner with files from MOHCCN on August 3, 2023 in News

Dalhousie’s Riley Arseneau is one of eight promising, early-career data scientists to have been named a recipient of the inaugural Health Informatics & Data Scientist Awards funded by the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network (MOHCCN). Arseneau will receive $40,000 over the next year to be matched by Dalhousie for a total of $80,000 to support revolutionary research in precision oncology.

Originally from Ottawa, Arseneau completed her undergrad in Medical Sciences at Dalhousie University, and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in the Department of Pathology, where she plans to transfer to a PhD to continue her project.

Arseneau’s research focuses on exploring how the genetics of a pancreatic tumour affect how immune cells enter and interact with the tumour. In particular, she is focusing on a type of immune cell called the natural killer (NK) cell. Arseneau and others have already shown that NK cells are important in solid tumours and that these can kill pancreatic cancer cells and think that NK cells will be ideal to use for therapy. But first, they need to understand how they work (or not) in each patient.

"Riley’s work is groundbreaking,” says mentor, Dr. Jeanette Boudreau. “For the first time ever, we are looking at the genetic sequences of pancreatic cancer in Atlantic Canada. Right away, this will help us to better understand how to approach patient treatment more precisely. Riley’s work to link genetic and immune features will unlock new possibilities for immunotherapy of this devastating disease, by showing us how the immune system engages with, and fails in response to pancreatic cancer.”

Pancreatic cancer has a poor survival rate and little time for treatment after diagnosis. More effective treatments are needed, and clinicians need to find further ways to quickly decide what the best approach to treatment is for each patient. Genetic mutations allow a tumour to grow, and the immune system is one way that it can be eliminated. Arseneau will use data collected in the Marathon of Hope Gold Cohort, alongside additional genetic and immunologic analysis in her laboratory to further her research.

“Making precision medicine a reality for more cancer patients will require a multidisciplinary approach that necessarily includes professionals who can analyze large amounts of data for the benefit of cancer patients,” says Dr. André Veillette, Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network executive director. “These awards support up-and-coming professionals in this field to ensure that Canada nurtures the best and brightest minds, positioning us as world leaders in precision medicine and improving outcomes and quality of life for cancer patients now and into the future.”

Arseneau's ultimate career goal is to continue in research with a focus on genetics and immunotherapy, but with the backing of this award, Arseneau will be able to dive deeper into understanding the link between tumour genetics and the immune responses in pancreatic cancer. “I am thrilled to have been awarded the 2023 MOHCCN Health Informatics and Data Science Award,” she says. “We expect this project will not only advance our understanding of pancreatic cancer, but also guide future research for developing precision therapies for this deadly disease.”