Will there ever be one cure for cancer?

TL;DR – probably not.

Cancer is a disease which will have an impact on most people throughout their lifetimes, and there are few things that can bring people to agreement more than wanting a cure for this disease. But despite countless years of financial investments and researchers who dedicate their careers to cancer, we still don’t have a “cure”, and it can be difficult for non-scientists to fathom why.

One key concept to understand here is that cancer is not a single disease, does not have a single cause, and therefore cannot have a single cure. The differences between neuroblastoma and breast cancer are vast. And similarly, between patients with the same cancer type (e.g. two patients with breast cancer), the differences can be equally as big. Let’s for a minute, take an analogy of a large business company. (Disclaimer, I have never studied business in my life, so please humour me). The company is run by a CEO and board of directors and has many different departments with managers and teams of workers with specific roles. Suddenly, business is declining, and the company is not sure why. For one business, maybe this is down to someone in the Communications team spreading misinformation. For another, maybe a mistake has been made in the Finance team, which has had a knock-on effect on the other departments. Maybe Human Resources have not been properly reprimanding staff who have broken protocol. With hundreds of staff working in the company, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the problem has arisen, which has negatively impacted the company as a whole.

Standard business hierarchy, created with BioRender.com

Human cells aren’t so different to a company. They have a central “nucleus” tasked with controlling the functioning of the cell as a whole (Board of Directors/Management). They have proteins which relay messages inside the cell, as well as outside with other surrounding cells (Communications). They have proteins which are responsible for detecting when something goes wrong, to correct or destroy whatever is acting out of place (Human Resources). Issues within any of the “departments” in a human cell can potentially lead to cancer, and just like our business model, it can be hard to trace where the problem arose, and it is often different between two cancers.

Cell signalling networks, or the “business departments” within a cell, from Reactome.org

For decades cancer was treated with chemotherapy, famous for attacking the good healthy cells as well as the bad. The research focus has now shifted towards more targeted therapies. An example of this is Herceptin therapy for breast cancer. This therapy targets a specific protein called HER2. HER2 is a team within the Communications department in breast cells. It receives communications from outside the cell, which tells the cell it’s time to grow, and relays this message to the Nucleus, which instructs proteins involved in cell growth to start this process. However, in some breast cancers, there are too many members in the HER2 team, all relaying this message to the Nucleus, resulting in too much cell growth. Herceptin is a drug which specifically targets HER2 and prevents it from relaying this message, effectively preventing the cancer cells from growing. While this can be very efficient at preventing tumour growth in HER2+ breast cancer, HER2 is not the culprit in all breast cancers. It is estimated that only 1 in 5 breast cancers have too many members in the HER2 team (Irish Cancer Society), and so targeting this will be inefficient in treating 4 out of 5 breast cancers. Meanwhile, cells of other cancers, such as liver or thyroid cancer, may not even have a HER2 team.

Hopefully, it is becoming clear why one “cure” will likely never be a reality. All cancers are different, all have different causes, and different employees breaking protocol. So, a one-size-fits-all approach simply can’t work. Instead, we need to focus on finding common company malpractices for each cancer, such as HER2 in breast cancer, generate a repertoire of different targeted treatment options depending on the various causes of cancer, and treat each patient as an individual investigation to determine what employee/protein is acting out of line to cause their cancer, so we can specifically reprimand them.

Written by Catherine Murphy

How I became interested in science?

I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis following 4 years of cancer research, which came after a 4-year undergrad in Biomolecular Sciences. But how did I get here? What prompts an interest in science? Or in my case specifically, in biology. When I was younger, I had bad asthma – estimated to affect 1 in 5 children in Ireland at some point (Asthma Society of Ireland). I remember spending many a morning in the asthma clinic in Tallaght Hospital when I was in primary school, entertaining myself in the play area while patiently waiting my turn to see the doctor. Admittedly, I didn’t really know what asthma was back then – I just knew that it was the reason I often got out of breath while playing sports and had to carry my clunky inhaler with me everywhere I went from school to sleepovers.

Asthma Society of Ireland Statistics

This changed in Secondary School in one of my 1st year Biology classes. We were learning about organ systems, and I vividly remember reading a small paragraph in the respiratory system section describing an asthma attack as a tightening of the muscles around the airways leading to constriction. It was by no means a detailed description, but for the first time, it made me think about what was actually going on in my body when I got out of breath. This awakened an interest in me as to how the body works. I continued to enjoy science classes throughout school and picked both Biology and Chemistry as Leaving Cert subjects. This enjoyment even led my friends to buy me some test-tube shot glasses as part of my 18th birthday present – a gift that I still have 8 years later! I was delighted to get into a Biomolecular Sciences degree after the Leaving Cert, and it was during this degree that my interests focused on cancer biology and immunology, the key research areas of my PhD, which looked at immune cell interactions in childhood cancer neuroblastoma. As this project comes to a close, I can’t help but wonder what my next scientific endeavour will be – will I stay in cancer research or unlock a new area of interest? Only time will tell!

My scientist origins 2015 – messing with St Paul’s most popular skeleton Mr. Bones in a Leaving Cert. chemistry class, the test-tube shot glasses my friends bought me for my 18th birthday, and the lab coat I bought for my undergrad degree (quite clearly not designed for short people)

When you’ve been in science for so long, it can be easy to forget how it all began, so I challenge any scientists reading this to reflect on what sparked their interest and led them to where they are today and how we can support the interests of the up-and-coming scientists of the future!

So, did I manage to keep sane?

Absolutely not.

If you read my last blog post in May, you’ll know that I made a list of my five top tips for keeping sane while thesis writing (read here). Well, today, I’m here to tell you that despite my best efforts, the “so close to the end” pressure and lunacy did eventually get me.

As I’ve said before, writing a thesis is hard. Not knowing when you’ll be done is hard. Setting deadlines to work towards, which subsequently fall through, is hard. And I actually now think it’s unreasonable to believe that there’s a 5-step formula to prevent this from taking a toll on your mental state.

I submitted my PhD thesis on the 15th of June – I won’t tell you how many months later than my original goal this is. But I submitted it nonetheless. The weeks leading up to this submission were tough as I started to feel the burn-out and longed to be done. I think the tips I shared before can help during this time, but I won’t tell you that they made my stress and desire to be finished disappear.

These feelings lifted the day before my submission, my last day of minor edits and final checks when I got up to watch the sunrise. I sat watching the sun rising over the sea and tried to embrace where I was in the present rather than thinking about where I could have been had I submitted sooner or where I’ll be in a few months when I close my PhD chapter. I started to feel some relief as I could see the light at the end of the tunnel just as clearly as I could see the sun rising. I listened to Billy Joel Vienna on the way home – “Slow down, you’re doing fine” – reinforcing all these feelings.

My “light at the end of the tunnel” – the sun rising over the sea in Dun Laoghaire

That day I wrote my thesis acknowledgements, where I thanked everyone who helped me through my PhD. I focused particularly on those who helped me in my not-so-sane moments over the thesis-writing period, my family and close colleagues/friends.

I still believe that the tips from my last post – maintaining social contacts, exercising, getting outdoors, having some fun and planning ahead – can help you navigate the thesis process. But I take back what I said about them keeping you sane. Because sometimes, the task at hand is just too big for one person to tackle without going off the rails a bit. It’s a balance between self-care, asking for help when needed, and simply riding out the waves.

For anyone who’s writing up and is feeling a lack of sanity, I hope you can find your own ways to ride out the waves, and I hope your light at the end of the tunnel becomes visible soon. I can assure you the post-submission honeymoon period is definitely something to look forward to!

Thesis submission celebrations at the Swan Bar – an RCSI tradition

Written by Catherine Murphy

Keeping Sane While Thesis-Writing

The question on everyone’s lips: “how’s thesis-writing going?” The question that has plagued me the last few months from well-meaning colleagues, friends and family. I can confirm that writing a PhD thesis can very much leave you feeling like SpongeBob, or Ross from friends – I’m fineeee!

It’s never going to be an easy task, and there’s always going to be moments where you feel like pulling your hair out with stress or booking a one-way flight to another country and never turning back – but I haven’t given in to those invasive thoughts yet! And I have found a few ways to keep myself from spiralling as I attack the monster that is the PhD thesis:

  1. Don’t give in to isolation

I get it, the temptation to lock yourself in a room with your laptop and completely block out the outside world until the thesis is done. But if you’re anything like me, this is a recipe for hitting a serious wall. After transitioning from being in the lab surrounded by my colleagues to being in a quiet room with just my thesis, I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t take time out to have lunch or a coffee with my friends, I’d be a very sad gal by the end of the day – not conducive to good writing. So don’t let the stress turn you into a hermit, your mental health will thank you for it.

  1. Move your body

This is a keep-sane mechanism that I neglected when the stress hit in my final year of my undergrad. I fell into the trap of thinking I didn’t have time to exercise – the wrong mindset!! I now recognize that by taking time out for a yoga class or to put my earphones in and throw some weight around RCSI gym, I’m giving myself the mental break I need to then have much more successful writing sessions afterwards. Not to mention keeping the endorphins high to balance out the thesis-induced cortisol production. So whatever your preferred form of exercise is – schedule it in and do it!

  1. Get outdoors

Another textbook keep-sane tip, but for a good reason! I know for a fact the days I get over to Stephen’s Green for a coffee walk or to eat lunch outside, I generally have a better mood for the day. And a happy gal is a productive gal. The serotonin boost from feeling the sun on your skin or seeing some gorge flowers or a cute squirrel is fairly unmatched. This can also be easily combined with Tips #1 and #2 at the weekends by planning a nice hike with friends to have the chats, move your bodies, see some views and, of course, get an obligatory coffee and sweet treat afterwards. I’ve found it to be an ideal weekend activity to get me out and feel like I’ve done something nice without tiring myself out too much to be able to get some work done afterwards. We’re so blessed in Dublin with parks, mountains and the seaside, not to be taken for granted!

  1. Schedule in some silliness

I know a lot of people who vow to stay on their best behaviour while they are thesis writing, saying no to social events involving a sneaky drink or two. But I have learned that for me, this is not the best approach, and scheduling in some occasional silliness is the best motivator to keep me going. You truly can’t beat the feeling of sending a draft off on a Friday evening, followed by heading out somewhere fun with your friends. Be that a karaoke night, a few drinks in the evening sunshine, or a night away somewhere, these moments of fun are important for keeping sane. It’s also important to remember that while it feels like your PhD is the center of the universe, it’s not a reason to miss out on life events happening in the meantime – your sister’s hen party, your friend’s birthday, or whatever else is happening outside of your PhD bubble. Finishing your PhD, like life in general, is about balance, moments of fun and silliness to balance out the serious stuff.

  1. Think ahead

My last tip for keeping sane while thesis-writing is to think ahead of what life might be like when you’re done. This does NOT mean stressing about applying for jobs or looking for new housing, or worrying about finances post-PhD, but just playing with ideas in your head of how you envision your life after you’ve earned the coveted Dr. title. Do you want to take a break from science, travel, or spend time with family? The world is quite literally your oyster. For a good chunk of my thesis-writing I avoided thinking ahead because it overwhelmed me, there’s often no definitive deadline to a PhD thesis, so it is difficult to plan ahead, and if you set yourself a deadline that you don’t meet, it can feel like a failure. But I’ve come to realise that by flexibly planning the end and what comes next, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes easier to see.

So they’re the five top methods I’ve been using to keep me sane in the final sprints of my PhD. My final word of wisdom is this – be compassionate with yourself. Writing a PhD thesis is not easy, and it does take time (sometimes more time than you had anticipated), so try not to beat yourself up if your progress isn’t where you thought it would be. You will finish, and it’s better to be in a mentally good place when you do so you can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and celebrations that come with it.

Happy (hopefully sane) writing!

Written by Catherine Murphy

A February Full of Conferences

For a short month, we really made the most of February in the Cancer Bioengineering Group. We attended not one, but two conferences both outside of Dublin, with presentations from every member of the group and more great memories made.

At the end of 2022, I was lucky enough to be sent on a 3-month research secondment to the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) in Barcelona, so I was delighted to return in February for the Transdisciplinary Approaches in Neuroblastoma Therapy symposium. I got to present my work from my secondment in “Flash-poster” style, alongside other group members Ciara, Lin & Alysia. Ellen and Ronja also did a great job presenting a more extended cut of their research, and we got to see team lead Olga give a round-up of our group’s work as a whole.

Barcelona, Spain, February 2023

Outside of the conference schedule, I was tasked with the role of Tour Guide because of my familiarity with the beautiful city of Barcelona. I led a group of 20+ researchers to a small bar in the Gothic Quarter for some well-deserved refreshments after a day of conferencing, brought my team to my favourite tapas restaurant for lunch (I still dream of the croquetas) and went on a lovely walk up Montjuic Hill to take in the views of Barcelona and reminisce on the 3 months I had spent there.

It felt as though the Ryanair flight had just touched down in Dublin when we started preparing for another conference – the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) meeting, taking place in Athlone. With great memories from IACR 2022 in Cork, I prepared for the conference with great excitement – looking forward to both interesting science talks, and good craic with the gang of RCSI researchers attending the conference. I had a poster presentation for this, again focussing on the work I carried out on secondment in IBEC as well as some work at home in RCSI. I enjoyed my chats with the poster judges who gave some good insights on the work. Ellen and Lin had oral presentations at the conference so again I got to resume my role as the group Twitter mom, taking pictures and drafting tweets while the girls showcased their great research.

IACR Meeting 2023, Athlone, Ireland

Each day when the conference was drawn to a close we set our sights on having a bit of fun with the other attendees. We enjoyed a pint of Guinness and some Trad music in the oldest bar in Ireland – Sean’s bar (they had the certificate to prove this). We made friends from outside RCSI including researchers from Queens University Belfast and Sales Representatives from various lab supply companies, had a good dance in the residents’ bar of our hotel and took over the dancefloor of a small local club.  The gala dinner was lovely as always, and I’ll forever have fond memories of my lab group playing “Heads Up” to entertain ourselves in between courses. Finally, a highlight for me was being given a Highly Commended Poster Award at the dinner, such a nice acknowledgement to receive for my work and a lovely way to wrap up the last conference of my PhD.

Written by Catherine Murphy

Return of the in-person conference – IACR2022

In-person conferences are back at last! In March 2021 I attended the IACR conference for the first time, albeit virtually. While there were some great talks at IACR 2021, the virtual experience was lacking in the networking and socialising opportunities that go hand-in-hand with traditional conferences. So I was very excited to be Cork-bound for IACR 2022 in March of this year.

To my surprise, my abstract was selected for a Proffered talk, meaning I had 10 minutes in the limelight of the IACR podium to present my research on immune markers in neuroblastoma. Having gone two years without presenting to a crowd, it was an adrenaline-filled experience, and it was great being surrounded by my colleagues after the talk rather than being at home alone in front of my computer.

Catherine Murphy, PhD student at IACR2022

There were many very memorable research talks and posters at IACR, but some of the best memories came from the moments in between the scientific sessions. From the train down to Cork with my lab group, to buffet dinners, a quick journey into Cork city, going for a swim in the lovely hotel pool, and singing and dancing the night away at the gala dinner on the last day of the conference.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the awards ceremony at the gala dinner, where to my delight I was awarded the Best Proffered PhD talk! What a fantastic way to end a great few days at IACR 2022.

Written by Catherine Murphy

In the Spotlight at EACR Virtual Congress

In early April, shortly after attending the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) virtual conference, I was delighted to find out I had been selected for a “Poster in the Spotlight” presentation at the European congress in June. I was invited to give a 10-minute presentation about my research on finding new immuno markers for drug-resistant neuroblastoma. This would be my first time presenting at a conference outside of Ireland (though I remained in my home in Dublin and not in the hoped destination of Turino) and so it was a very exciting experience!

On the morning of my talk, I logged onto zoom to meet the EACR session organisers and the other speakers in my session – a mixture of PhD students and Post-doc researchers from Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK. Each of our talks was then broadcasted to the virtual congress platform where cancer researchers around Europe could tune in.

After the presentations, we joined a “Meet the Speakers” session where we could chat with those who had tuned in, answer questions and open up some research discussions. I was asked one question from a researcher doing similar work to me on how I investigate the relationships between certain genes in cancer, and I was able to refer her onto the software I use – I hope this aids her research, as that’s the real aim of attending these conferences!

Following this, it was time to relax and watch some of the other interesting talks taking place in the congress. The EACR were running a photo competition to show where you were watching from in order to win a place at the 2022 congress in Seville. So, I took this opportunity to take my laptop out to the back garden and watch the congress in the sun, getting a selfie for twitter with #NotQuiteTorinoEACR2021. Fingers crossed by this time next year travelling for international conferences will be a reality for researchers once again!

Catherine Murphy, Neuroblastoma UK funded PhD student

One Day of the Life as a Researcher: PhD student

A lot has changed for me since I began my research journey in RCSI, as I transitioned from being an undergraduate placement student to a PhD candidate, however the biggest change has been adjusting to doing a lab-based PhD during a pandemic! 

We wear red coats when looking after our rather large family of neuroblastoma cells, which happily grow inside the 37°C incubator. White coats are for most other lab work, such as analysing proteins by gel electrophoresis and Western blotting. And of course, the newest lab accessory – the facemask.

These days my work hours are shared between the labs in RCSI and my family home. While my bench space and office space used to be separated by just a few steps, there is now a 30+ minute bus journey between them. It has certainly put my planning skills to the test as now when I walk into the lab I need to be sure of what I am planning to do, and that I can complete the task in my pre-booked lab time slot. 

I appreciate my time in the labs much more now that I spend so much time at home. Whether I am culturing neuroblastoma cells, analyzing proteins or genes by Western blots or PCRs, I enjoy immersing myself in the work knowing that my time on the bench is limited. 

The main perk is that now when I am doing computer work – analyzing results, writing reviews, preparing presentations, using online software – I can do it from the comfort of my box-room-office, often very cosy in a blanket as I do it. While my work-from-home desk space is slightly more spacious than my desk in the now-closed “Write-up Room 2”, I do miss the chats and laughs that come with working in a shared office.

One thing’s for sure though, my two dogs very much enjoy the days that I work from home!

Catherine Murphy, Neuroblastoma UK funded PhD student