Return journey

Sarah Mattonen, PhD'16

By Emily Leighton, MA’13

The waiting area at the London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP) is a sea of activity patients and their families occupy rows of identical chairs and staff members provide support and direction to new arrivals.

It’s this scene that alumna and imaging scientist Sarah Mattonen, PhD’16, navigates every day on her way to work at LRCP’s cancer research labs.

As she walks through the busy clinic, she is reminded of her personal connection to the disease she has built her career around. Her grandfather passed away from lung cancer when she was a teenager and in 2017, her father passed away from colorectal cancer.

“My own experiences with the disease have focused me,” she said. “They have shaped me as a person and continue to motivate me in making a difference for patients in the long-term.”

Mattonen is a new faculty member at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and holds the inaugural Gerald C. Baines Research Chair for Translational Cancer Imaging. The position has brought her full circle from her days as a graduate trainee in the same hospital-based research labs.

“I feel so fortunate to have been given this opportunity to start my independent research career back in London,” she said.

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Mattonen completed a bachelor of science in medical radiation sciences at the University of Toronto. The professional undergraduate program exposed her to imaging research – in particular, she credits a third-year placement at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for igniting an interest in the field.

After beginning her graduate studies as a master’s student with the Department of Medical Biophysics at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, she reclassified to a PhD program and successfully defended her doctoral thesis in 2016.

Co-supervised by Aaron Ward, PhD, Associate Professor, and Dr. David Palma, Assistant Professor, she is now working alongside her mentors once again as part of the Baines Imaging Research Laboratories at LRCP. “Their support was crucial in my professional development throughout graduate school,” she said. “Now, as colleagues, we’re working as a team and supporting one another.”

Mattonen completed her postdoctoral training at Stanford University before returning to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry for the faculty position last year. “The multidisciplinary environment in London is so special,” she said. “With resources across the whole city, we can really make a difference for patients.”

Mattonen’s research is focused on translational cancer imaging. She is developing, evaluating and translating quantitative image analysis tools to support all aspects of oncology, from diagnosis to treatment selection and assessment.

Her work aims to better support physicians in their clinical decision-making, enhancing imaging methods that are already part of the standard clinical workflow, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT).

By attaching quantitative descriptors to the images, such as tumour location, shape, texture or size, Mattonen and her research team are able to develop an algorithm that interprets the data and predicts certain outcomes.

In one project, Mattonen’s lab is looking specifically at lung cancer recurrence, identifying features in patients whose cancer has recurred and developing a predictive model based on the data.

“We’re training the computer to find patterns in these large data sets,” Mattonen explained. “The hope is that when a new patient comes into the clinic, we can calculate their specific image features and apply the model. The computer will then give us a prediction or probability of recurrence.”

So will cancer diagnosis and treatment soon be determined by a computer? Mattonen says no, but artificial intelligence plays an important role in advancing personalized medicine.

“We’re not building these models to replace the radiologist or radiation oncologist, but to augment their performance and improve decision making,” she said.

Being in the clinic, where these type of decisions are made on a daily basis, motivates the researcher to continue pushing boundaries. “Walking through the clinic every day reinforces why I’m here,” Mattonen said. “As a researcher in this environment, I can truly appreciate the impact my work can have on clinical care. It really hits home for me.”