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.
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!
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).
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.
I continue to share the meaning of research for non-science students. Zaki was a summer medical student in 2015.
“I am a final year Malaysian medical student studying at RCSI. I had the opportunity to join RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) by assisting in research with Cancer Genetics, Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics Department of RCSI. My mentor was Dr Olga Piskareva. My research project investigated the role of chromogranin A as a biomarker in drug-resistant neuroblastoma by analysing its expression in different neuroblastoma samples of murine models.
Frankly speaking, I had zero experience in clinical research (apart from basic science project I did at high school) before the placement started. The reading materials that Dr Piskareva handed to me felt like an alien language that had to be deciphered, let alone doing experiment with western blotting and ELISA. I remembered my first day at the lab, staring enthusiastically at every apparatus and machines but not knowing how to run them.
Fortunately, Dr Piskareva and other lab buddies were very experienced and helpful enough with my insufficiency. Their perseverance and willingness to share knowledge and tip built my confidence and understanding to finish my research project. I never had any difficulty to discuss and ask for help any time I needed it from them in the lab. They were also very warm and friendly not just inside the lab but also outside of the lab.
I felt like we were one big multinational family in one small lab. Imagine researchers coming from Russia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands and myself from Malaysia working hand-in-hand, together. Over time, we bonded very close especially with our weekly breakfast getaway at Gerry’s and my friend Mei Rin and I even prepared our Malaysian cuisine for everyone in the lab in our last days. Even though most of my friends went home for the summer break, never did I felt lonely during my time in the lab. I am very grateful to have them in the lab and to call them my ‘keluarga’ (means family in Malay language).
After the research, I had the opportunity to do poster presentation at RCSI Research Day 2016 and International Conference for Healthcare and Medical Students (ICHAMS) 2016 at RCSI. These were great platforms for me to share my findings with other researchers. Above all, these were made possible with the help of Dr Piskareva and my lab buddies in preparing the poster and full report of the research. Additionally, the findings also provided me with extra information about neuroblastoma in line with my medicine study in paediatrics.
I would cherish every moment in the lab and indeed it was a very priceless experience. I would very much do it all over again in the lab if I had the chance because of the craving for knowledge and warmth of the lab buddies.
My RSS project investigated the role of VDAC-1 protein on chemotherapy resistance in neuroblastoma. The only research focus of this lab is to find key players in neuroblastoma pathogenesis and to advance anti-cancer therapy.
I was entrusted with the task of splitting cells. I would plate them onto 96-well plates, add cisplatin drug and measure their viability afterwards. It may sound simple here, but the whole process required passion and hard-work.
Prior to this, I did not have any experience in the medical research field. During my first two weeks, everything seemed so tough; however, they became easier as the weeks flew by. My mentor, Olga, and the other staff and PhD students (Garret, John and Ross) were helpful and always guided me to explore my potentials. This programme taught me various new things which I would not have acquired on a normal day-to-day basis in school.
The people at Cancer Genetics were warm and wonderful. The hospitality, love and guidance cannot be quantified and words cannot express my immense gratitude towards them. It has been fascinating and I cherish every moment I spent there. We bonded over our weekly breakfast and tea sessions so well, and I am indeed grateful for being a part of this big family. It is my sincere wish that this positive spirit of togetherness will be preserved and will grow stronger in the future. This is something special, and I think ours is the best lab at RCSI!
I returned to Penang Medical College to further my studies in my clinical years. I took part in the PMC Research Day 2016 in which I was awarded the First Prize in Oral Presentation. I would like to dedicate this success to Olga and everyone who has been with me throughout my time at Cancer Genetics. Without all the guidance, I would not have made it this far.
I strongly urge students to take part in the research opportunities, because you gain invaluable experiences that you do not get elsewhere. May whatever we do at the lab today make a difference in another person’s life someday in the future.