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Seeing is Believing

Dr. Abdi Ghaffari studies the response of metastatic tumour cells to therapy using real-time live imaging techniques

July 31, 2015

by Karl Hardy

Dr. Abdi Ghaffari in the lab

Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Abdi Ghaffari: Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, Queen's Cancer Research Institute.


Metastases are the cause of 90% of human cancer deaths and lymph node metastasis is the most important prognostic factor in the management of breast cancer patients. However, the mechanisms involved in lymph node metastasis and its response to anti-cancer therapeutics are poorly understood. Dr. Abdi Ghaffari’s research sheds light on the complex processes of lymph node metastasis using a unique real-time intravital microscopy technique developed at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute Advanced Bioimaging facility.

Queen’s University’s excellent reputation in the field of medical research drew Abdi to pursue a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Pathology and Molecular Medicine. Abdi arrived at Queen’s in 2011 after completing his doctorate at UBC where his studies of wound healing in burn patients led to an interest in cancer, described as a wound that never heals. His postdoctoral research focuses on live imaging of lymph node metastasis, which involves tracking the movement of cancer cells as they invade body’s lymphatic system. This research represents great promise in the study of metastasis biology and development of novel anti-metastatic therapeutics to improve patient outcome.

Abdi’s research is currently supported by a Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, and operating grants from Cancer Research Society and Breast Cancer Action Kingston. He was also the recipient of the Canadian Institute of Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship from 2011 to 2014. Abdi is grateful for the continual support and encouragement from his supervisor Dr. Bruce Elliott and mentors Drs. Sandip SenGupta and Peter Greer in tackling this innovative, but then-untested research project. “Without their trust in me I couldn’t have pursued this research,” Abdi says, “they gave me the opportunity to grow as an independent researcher and develop our novel lymph node imaging model, when others were initially doubting its viability.”

Cancer cells can escape the original tumour site through the blood or lymphatic vessels. Research progress in the understanding of lymphatic invasion and metastasis has been slow due to late emergence of specific lymphatic biomarkers to distinguish between blood and lymphatic vessels. To study the behaviour of cancer cells in the lymphatic system, Abdi uses a novel genetically-modified lymphatic reporter mouse, developed by Dr. Kiefer at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, where the lymphatic vessels and nodes emit orange fluorescence allowing for direct visualization at high resolutions by a microscope. Following injection of cancer cells and tumour growth, Abdi directly images the behaviour and movement of metastatic tumour cells within the lymph nodes, the effect of anti-cancer therapeutics, and host’s immune response to cancer. The research seeks to determine how metastatic cells from the original tumor site actually spread via the lymphatic system, and whether lymph nodes act as a reservoir for further metastasis to other organs. The model will also allow researchers to directly observe the response of immune cells, such as killer T cells, to metastasis and opens doors to the development of novel immunotherapies in breast cancer.

Intravital Imaging of Lymph Node Metastasis

The initial discovery that had led Abdi to develop the lymphatic imaging model has been published in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research. He also plans to present these novel findings at the next Canadian Cancer Conference (Montreal, Nov 8, 2015) and San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (Dec 8, 2015), in addition to publications in leading cancer journals. As with much research in the field of medical science, this a collaborative effort involving multiple researchers and funding bodies, which Abdi notes is crucial to his successes. “Our research institute has a real family atmosphere that I’m very grateful for,” Abdi said, “There is a great deal of support for one another’s work at the Queen’s Cancer Institute, that’s truly rare to find.”

Abdi is a proud father of two children, and he believes they have found a home in Kingston. When researching potential postdoctoral positions, Abdi prioritized Queen’s in part because of Kingston’s reputation for a high quality of life and strong community ties. Abdi’s future goals include expanding on his imaging model and, with help from his valued colleagues and mentors, transforming Queen’s Cancer Research Institute into an world-renown centre for real-time imaging of cancer metastasis.

In addition to his academic pursuits, Abdi is also quite passionate about policies affecting postdoctoral research environment. He has served as the postdoctoral representative at Queen’s Senate Advisory Research Committee since 2012. Abdi also serves as the Vice-Chair of Finance for the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP). He is particularly proud of the completion of the most comprehensive survey of Canadian postdoctoral scholars to date, which highlighted best practices on issues such as career development, salary, health benefits, and family and child support. Abdi is obviously an example of the substantial contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to the life of Queen’s University. Clearly, the Canadian cancer research scene, as well as Queen’s and Kingston communities would greatly benefit from having Abdi around for years to come.