Father of Chemotherapy and Cancer Immunology

I was giving a talk at Georg-Speyer-Haus Institute for Tumour Biology and Experimental Therapy yesterday. The aim of my visit was to establish collaboration with Prof Daniela Krause, who is the expert in bone marrow microenvironment and targeted therapies. She took me to the Institute museum that keeps the history of this place and phenomenal researchers used to work there.

This research institute was established in 1904 to support work of Paul Ehrlich, its first director and funded by the private foundation “Chemotherapeutisches Forschungsinstitut Georg-Speyer-Haus”. Paul Erlich is the Father of the chemotherapy concept originally developed to treat diseases of bacterial origin. He reasoned that there should be a chemical compound that can specifically target bacteria and stop its growth. He developed Salvarsan, the most effective drug for treatment of syphilis until penicillin came onto the market.

Paul Erlich is also known for his contribution to cancer research. He and his colleagues actively experimented on how tumour originates and spread. They also tried to understand how immune system can beat cancer applying vaccination concepts.

Paul Erlich’s Lab back then. Now it is a museum

Paul Erlich and Ilya Mechnikov were jointly awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “work on immunity” in 1908.

 

The Nobel Prize Diploma

What is the risk group classification system?

To be able to guide the treatment of neuroblastoma patients, doctors have developed a number of classification systems. Although sharing common features, they slightly vary by medical center, country and continents making direct comparisons of treatment results difficult. Doctors and scientists are trying to consolidate all systems in one in order to evaluate treatments in the past, currently ongoing and in the future.

Scientists have suggested a newer risk group classification system, the International Neuroblastoma Risk Group (INRG) classification that would incorporate the best knowledge gained and recent advancements in the disease imaging and neuroblastoma molecular diagnostics. This system is based on imaging criteria using the image-defined risk factors (IDRFs) and the prognostic factors such as:

  • The child’s age
  • Tumour histology (the tumour appearance under the microscope)
  • The presence or absence of MYCN gene amplification
  • Certain changes in chromosome 11 (known as an 11q aberration)
  • DNA ploidy (the total number of chromosomes in the tumour cells)
The table is adapted from Pinto NR J Clin Oncol. 2015

Using these factors the INRG classification put children into 16 different pre-treatment groups (lettered A through R). Each of these pretreatment groups is within 1 of 4 overall risk groups:

  1. Very low risk (A, B, C)
  2. Low risk (D, E, F)
  3. Intermediate risk (G, H, I, J)
  4. High risk (K, N, O, P, Q, R)

This system has not yet become common across all medical centers, but it is being researched in new treatment protocols.

Doctors and scientists are planning to improve the INRG classification system by incorporating other molecular diagnostics data such as profiles of the neuroblastoma genome (DNA), transcriptome (RNA), and epigenome* in order to make precise prognostication even better.

* The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds and proteins that can attach to DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, controlling the production of proteins in particular cells

References:

Pinto NR, Applebaum MA, Volchenboum SL, Matthay KK, London WB, Ambros PF, Nakagawara A, Berthold F, Schleiermacher G, Park JR, Valteau-Couanet D, Pearson AD, Cohn SL. Advances in Risk Classification and Treatment Strategies for Neuroblastoma.J Clin Oncol. 2015 Sep 20;33(27):3008-17.

What is cancer?

Cancer is an umbrella term that covers a group of diseases sharing the common features but diseases vary by site of origin, tissue type, race, sex, and age. One of the main features is an uncontrollable growth of cells. These cells are capable of spreading to other parts of the body. This process is also known as invasion and metastasis.

Though cancer in kids is not the same as in adults, childhood cancer cells behave in the same way. They grow uncontrollably and can travel to new destinations in the body.

This video ‘Cancer: from a healthy cell to a cancer cell’ nicely explains this transformation.

This video ‘How does cancer spread through the body?’ gives a perspective on the ways cancer cells travel in the body.

August is a very quiet month

It is very quiet in the lab this month. No troubleshooting, no more long working hours, endless repetition of experiments, smiles and upsets… Almost all students completed their projects, submitted their works for grading and graduated. The last student is finishing at the end of August.

Time to focus on the collected data, reading literature, writing papers and new grants.

http://www.ifunny.com/pictures/its-rather-interesting-phenomenon-every-time-i/

Research Summer School in Action

It is always a pleasure to host undergraduate students during summer months. Two students joined the RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) Programme. Both are working on the NCRC funded project to understand mechanisms that drive neuroblastoma pathogenesis. None of them had a prior lab experience, but nothing is impossible under John’s supervision.

A full concentration on every single step of the research.

CMRF Spring Newsletter features neuroblastoma research

The research is a long-term investment. It is always built up on the work of the predecessors. Keep research running is crucial to make the dreams come true. Dreams for better treatment options and quality of life.

 

Thank you to everyone involved in raising funds for CMRF!

CMRF Spring Newsletter can be found here – CMRF-Spring Newsletter Final 15.05.17

Neuroblastoma Research Dream Team 2017

It is fantastic to see so knowledgeable and enthusiastic young researchers in my research group. This year, the team is multinational with the Irish students mixing with Belgian and Malaysian. All together they are cracking the code of neuroblastoma microenvironment and tumour cells communication through understanding main differences between conventional cancer cell models and tumours.

The big research plan of the entire team consists of more smaller and focused projects to be completed within 10-12 weeks. All projects are unrestricted, they are driven by the intellectual curiosity of these students. This way is full of ups and downs, frustrations and encouragements when techniques do not work or reagents do not come in as expected. Some cancer concepts can also work differently in the given settings. Simple questions are bringing more challenges than expected.  But at the end of the road is the best reward – contribution to the conceptual advancement of neuroblastoma microenvironment.

 

 

The Neuroblastoma Research Dream Team 2017: Dr. John Nolan, NCRC funded researcher, RCSI, Joe O’Brien, TCD MSc student, Ciara Gallagher, DIT undergraduate student, Jessica Tate, RCSI Medical student, Larissa Deneweth, Erasmus student, Ghent, Ying Jie Tan, TCD MSc student.

Why do we need fundraising for cancer research?

There is no short answer. Research is a slow, meticulous process of testing theories and finding out which ones work.It is exactly the same for both curiosity- and disease- driven questions. Long years of ground research full of ups and downs are critical for any breakthrough or progress. Very often with more downs than ups. Importantly, all researchers build on the work of their predecessors. This is the nature of science.

To understand the world around us, we have to do be curious and do “blue sky or curiosity-driven” research. It is a long shot, but this type of research can lead to practical applications down the road. One of the most recent examples is a drug Vismodegib (Erivedse) to treat basal cell carcinoma (the most common type of skin cancer) approved by the FDA in 2012. This drug targets genes of a hedgehog-associated signalling pathway. Defects in this pathway were found to drive many cases of skin cancer. But, how this relationship was found? Blue sky research!

Researchers studied hedgehog signalling in fruit flies and mice. One of the researchers had a strong interest in a fruit fly gene called hedgehog. If this gene is defective, then fly embryos look stubby and hairy aka a hedgehog. Further research brought more interesting facts and relationships leading to the identification of a drug that can stop the function of this faulty gene. Decades later with the advancement of genome sequencing, the defect in hedgehog signalling pathway genes was identified in patients with locally advanced and metastatic basal cell carcinoma.

What would happen if there were no research in fruit flies and mice? There would have been no rationale to create a drug like Vismodegib!

The best discovery research is unrestricted. It is driven by intellectual curiosity and conceptual advancement. More such curiosity- driven research is needed. For every medical breakthrough, for every Vismodegib, there were hundreds of blind alleys and failed ideas.

The research is a long-term investment. This contradicts to the short-term life of the politicians and governments who give the money. They do not take the risks. So, the discovery research becomes critically underfunded.

Fundraising creates opportunities for blue sky research and developing cancer treatments.

Thank you all who support cancer research charities!

 

The IACR Meeting 2017 is targeting childhood cancer challenges and advancements

This week Newpark Hotel Kilkenny is hosting the Irish Association for Cancer Research annual meeting 2017. This meeting is the biggest event for Irish cancer researchers.

This is the first time in the history of the IACR meetings when an entire plenary session is solely dedicated to challenges and advancements in childhood cancer.

This session will unite Internationally recognised leaders in childhood cancer research. They will speak about what we know about origin and evolution of childhood cancers (Prof. Tariq Enver), how blood biomarkers can help in stratification and treatment of children (Prof. Sue Burchill), what impact Down syndrome has in the white blood cell cancer development and progression (Prof. Irene Roberts), how epigenetic changes affect tumour pathogenesis and future of therapeutics targeting theses changes (Prof Raymond Stallings).

How to become a researcher?

It is always interesting to see what kids think about science and scientists. How their vision is affected by environment. A 7 year old boy drew a scientist in a funny but positive way. The scientist’s heart has a form of chemical flask.

Three years later, the same boy participated in the RDS Primary Science Fair which runs side by side with the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. The idea of this exhibition is very simple. It is a non-competitive event, showcasing STEM research projects (science, technology, engineering and maths) carried out by primary school classes across Ireland. The research projects encourage children’s native curiosity to explore the science behind the everyday.

His class presented a research project ‘Are We Living in the Dark Ages?’ The bunch of 4th class students were exploring the importance of sun light and electricity in our every day life.A colleague of mine was ‘Head Judge’ at this Fair and pointed out the overall enthusiasm and positivity coming from these young children about the research undertaken. I personally was stopped by every school team. Children wanted to share their findings. The project and its presentation were very important for them.

Children are natural explorers and when their ability can be encouraged by the events like the RDS Primary Science Fair, then we, adults, can feel reassured that research can make dreams come true. Dreams about new effective therapies, spaceflights to new stars and planets and many more.