• Today
    June 25

  • 02:55 PM

Tackling breast cancer one cell at a time


Added 08 October 2018


Shawn Hercules is a PhD candidate at McMaster University. (GP)

Shawn Hercules is on a mission, but it is not to perform any of the 12 tasks that were assigned to the Greek hero Hercules. His mission involves studying the female breast. Specifically, he is trying to figure out the causes of breast cancer, especially among black women, and come up with better treatment options for them.

“Although more white women than black women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States and Britain, more black women die from breast cancer in those populations. This may have to do with the fact that a higher proportion of black women are diagnosed with a more aggressive form of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer for which there are currently no specific treatments.

“So this may be contributing to the higher overall mortality rate from breast cancer in black women. My research specifically investigates the clinical and genetic profiles of Nigerian, Barbadian, Jamaican and North American women diagnosed with this aggressive form of breast cancer,” he explained. 

But who exactly is Shawn Hercules? Shawn is a 27-year-old Barbadian, who is currently pursuing his PhD in the biology department at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. This PhD will bring him a step closer to making the lives of black female cancer victims a bit easier.

The lead-up to the PhD was a long and arduous journey, but one that fully equipped him for where he’s at presently.  

However, he noted, that this was not a journey he ever imagined he would have taken after coming from humble beginnings as a student at Combermere School. 

“After Combermere, I pursued a double major BSc in biochemistry and chemistry, then a Master of Public Health (MPH), both at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill. During my MPH, I interned at the Healthy Caribbean Coalition and afterward worked as a research assistant at the Chronic Disease Research Centre. I then moved to Canada to pursue my PhD in the fall of 2015,” he said in the interview via email.

But why exactly did Shawn decide to focus on breast cancer research? 

He told EASY magazine he was introduced to Dr Juliet Daniel, a fellow Bajan and professor at McMaster University when she was on research leave in Barbados in 2015 and he was intrigued by her research. 

“Dr Daniel was working on this research project long before I joined her lab. We met when she was in Barbados collecting data and meeting with our collaborators from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at the time – Dr Desiree Skeete and Dr Suzanne Smith Connell. The groundwork that they did along with the help of the pathology and radiotherapy departments have greatly impacted the project’s success so far. My background in science and public health, and my interest in marrying these two fields really planted my foothold in working in Dr Daniel’s research lab,” he explained. 

And so far the research that he and Dr Daniel’s research team have been working on has been going great. Shawn said he is excited about all the other things he’s going to learn and all the people he and Dr Daniel’s team will one day assist because of their research. 

“The research has been going really well. So far we found that there was significantly more expression of a protein called Kaiso in the breast tumour specimens that were collected in Barbados and Nigeria, when compared to its expression in African American and Caucasian American tumour specimens. This Kaiso protein was discovered by Dr Daniel over 20 years ago and it has been linked to the aggressiveness of various cancers.

“One of our long-term goals is to identify mutations in the genes of black women that have potential to be clinically relevant as risk factors or biomarkers for cancer development. Further research needs to be done to get to these future studies but our initial findings are very exciting as they are laying a strong foundation for further research for us to incorporate these findings into drug discovery,” he further explained. 

And Shawn stressed to Barbadian women that breast cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be. 

“Breast cancer is no longer a life sentence, especially if caught early. Detecting breast cancer early significantly improves the outcomes for the better. Having the tumour is not what necessarily causes death in the patient; one major cause of death after the diagnosis is when cells from the tumour start to move and migrate from the primary site in the breast to other vital organs such as the lungs. If the tumour is caught early, physicians can treat the patient and prevent or slow down the spread of the tumour to other parts of the body,” he stressed. 

He added, “Instilling fear is never my intention but bringing awareness to this issue that affects us all in one way or another is a main interest of mine. This does not only apply to breast cancer or cancers in general; this goes for any health issue. Know your body, be aware of it and don’t be afraid to approach your doctor about any abnormalities you may feel in your body.”

At the same time, he said he was pleased to see more people in Barbados starting to take the disease a lot more seriously than they used to. 

“Generally, we don’t really take things as seriously as we should until we are confronted with them . . . . I’ve seen an increase in breast cancer awareness across the island with the various events and activities planned for the month of October [Breast Cancer Awareness Month].

“I’ve seen photos of offices being decorated to raise awareness, friends on Instagram sharing stories of women close to them who were affected by breast cancer, as well as the awareness from seeing thousands of participants at the various walks. Seeing these things has been encouraging and I hope this trend continues so that Bajans are more aware of their potential risk and are aware that early detection is best,” Shawn said. 

As for whether he is going to move back to Barbados to put his studies into practice, Shawn said he is still debating when is the best time to return to Barbados, but he was excited about the day when he could return and help and inspire others.

“I intend to return to Barbados after more time is spent abroad honing my research skills and becoming a better researcher in order to be more valuable to Barbados. I hope to one day work closely with the Ministry of Health and UWI to increase capacity and excitement in the youth for health and science.

“We know of many health issues that exist in the Caribbean, but if there is no further investigation or research about these health issues by us, who will conduct that research for us? I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists to pursue these careers and to help us establish Barbados and the Caribbean as leaders in these fields.” (DB)


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