A rising star in cancer research

Aaron Ward, PhD

By Jesica Hurst, BA'14

If you were to have asked a younger Aaron Ward, PhD, how he was going to apply his background in computer science, he probably would have replied, “as a high school math and computer science teacher.”

And that was his original plan, until a few experiences made him realize he might be better suited for a career that revolved around research.

Flash forward to present day, and Ward is now using his skills to help pave the way for new developments in cancer research. The Associate Professor works in The Gerald C. Baines Centre for Translational Cancer Research in London — a translational imaging laboratory located within a cancer centre, allowing for easier translation of ideas between imaging research, clinicians and trainees.

We sat down with Ward to talk about his path to success in academia, the enjoyment he gets from working with trainees and postdoctoral fellows, and why campaigns like Movember actually make an impact.

How does your education background apply to the work you’re doing today?

I took a circuitous route to get to where I am today. All of my degrees are in computer science, so I started in a very basic science world developing algorithms. My initial training had nothing to do with medicine at all, but as the trajectory of my graduate training progressed the work became more and more applied to medical imaging.

Once I got a taste of that, I wanted to do more. That brought me to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Robarts Research Institute.

What did you enjoy most about working at Robarts and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as a whole?

What originally attracted me to Robarts is that I could see a group of high-powered scientists really applying what they were developing. After training there for two years, it became obvious to me how vibrant the imaging research community is, and how collaborative and collegial it is city-wide. There is a fluidity to the way people work.

I could also see that a lot of value is put on trainees and postdoctoral fellows at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry — they are not just numbers here. That is something I value as well.

How did you end up working at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?

In 2011, an opportunity came up for me to take on a faculty position. I was really excited to do so, because we have a very rare and unique culture of collaboration here in London.

Tell me about your current research.

In cancer, there is a pressing need to be able to do three things — improve treatment selection, improve treatment guidance, and improve treatment response assessment.

When it comes to personalizing cancer treatment, there are a number of options available for clinicians to choose from. Clinicians know what has performed well in clinical trials and what the right choice is for the average person, but that option might not always be the right choice for the patient sitting in front of them. There is a treatment selection issue.

Then, after the treatment has been selected, there is a treatment guidance issue. With prostate cancer, for example, it is challenging to just treat one spot within the gland that has the tumor — we are still doing whole prostate therapy, which brings along several side effects. The reason we can’t focus in with more confidence is that it is hard to see the cancer on imaging. Once you know that you want to do focal therapy, how do you target the right spot?

And finally, there is the issue of treatment response assessment. After a patient has received the treatment they will come back for follow-up assessments. This will usually involve some imaging to try to answer the key question of whether or not the treatment worked. Imaging can play a big role there in trying to determine who needs what, but it isn’t always clear.

My lab is working on particular disease sites where these three tasks are difficult to do by the naked eye. In some cancers, a radiologist is able to look at the image and can tell you what is needed, will proceed with the treatment, and everything will be fine. In other scenarios, it’s not that simple. It’s in those not so simple scenarios that we try to bring in the power of the computer to be able to mine images for patterns that are there but are very subtle, that are easier for the machine to extract.

Where we really focus our attention is on clinical workhorse imaging — the kind of imaging that is required in clinics every day. That is, we build new computational tools to extract more information from existing imaging systems, rather than building new kinds of imaging systems. This clinical imaging is already happening, it’s generally inexpensive, and we can complement what is already happening by adding a piece of software.

Did you ever imagine you would be using your computer science background in a way that has a direct impact on health care?

I always knew I wanted to do something that would have social impact, I just didn’t know what that would be. But this is a great fit, and it took getting into a centre where we were co-located with the hospital that made me realize how you can work in teams to really make an impact.

When people are physically siloed, you get a disconnect between groups that is difficult to mend. Researchers can end up going off in their own curiosity-driven ways. But getting clinicians really embedded with your group makes all the difference — they help you keep it real.

Does working within a clinical environment like the cancer centre help motivate you and your trainees by giving reminding you what you’re working for?

Doing research can be like trying to find water in the desert. One of the most important traits that a trainee needs is resiliency, because in research you’re going to fail the majority of the time. I think when trainees get the opportunity to go to clinical rounds in the cancer centre and hear physicians discussing challenging cases, it helps to show them how big of an enemy we are actually up against. I suspect that it helps them understand that even though their contribution may seem small, it is the sum of all of the small contributions that add up to improved care. No single individual is going to cure this overnight.

Do you have any specific research or career goals you want to achieve?

I’m not going to be satisfied until I can say that my lab has had a big impact on patient care. Generating publications and getting grants are metrics for success as a scientist, and we’ve found success in that way. But I have fire in my belly to translate this work to care and that is a challenging leap, but we have to do it.

Your lab is primarily made up of trainees, not staff. How have you enjoyed working with and mentoring them?

Trainees need to have the opportunity to learn and have achievable goals that lead to publication, that lead to thesis, that lead to their next career step. We have a big, lofty goal of trying to get our work migrated to care, but at the same time that’s not likely going to happen within the scope of one PhD thesis. I have been tasked with breaking this work down into something that is going to be a rich training experience that will help build the individuals up so they become independent while helping us move forward to our ultimate goal.

In my job I have to wear a lot of hats, but my favourite thing is being able to work with graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows. It’s just the best. They come in a certain way, and when they leave you see what they’ve become. I’m very proud of the trainees I’ve worked with — they’ve owned their projects and developed themselves in a way that they have become highly desired by top institutions. My trainees have gone onto institutions like Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and University College London.

I think there might be a common misconception that money donated through campaigns like Movember don’t always make it to scientists working on research. However, you recently received close to $450,000 in funding from Prostate Cancer Canada’s Rising Star in Prostate Cancer Research Award, which is partially funded by the Movember Foundation.

Most of the research my group is doing related to prostate cancer wouldn’t be possible without Prostate Cancer Canada. At this point this funding is developing three trainees and moving us forward toward having a road map to treat prostate cancer patients and make actual impact. The type of funding I received also protects my time for research, which means that rather than having 40 per cent of my time protected for research I have 75 per cent of my time protected for research. I’m very grateful to them and Movember for this.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

When I’m not working, I try to get as far away from technology as I can. I run, I camp, I fish whenever I can. I try to get away from everything, because I think it’s important to have a reset. When I have time, I enjoy doing a little bit of woodworking, too.