Welcome to the Cancer Bioengineering Group!

It is time for a full group presentation here at the blog! Throughout the month we shared about our group members and their research focus on Twitter. Now, we would like to share more about the group here and invite you to keep following us on social media. 

The Cancer BioEngineering Group is a research group led by Dr Olga Piskareva at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The group has 6 PhD students developing research projects around neuroblastoma biology.  

Our projects address topics related to neuroblastoma microenvironment, cell interactions, tumour resistance and the development of new therapies. To do that we use 3D in vitro models, identify immunotherapeutic targets and evaluate extracellular vesicles.  

We are a dynamic group proud to be engaged in research, science communication and patient involvement. We do that through different initiatives.  

We support and collaborate with several neuroblastoma charities around Ireland and internationally such as the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Foundation, the National Children Research Centre, the Children’s Health Foundation Crumlin and the Neuroblastoma UK. Moreover, our projects are funded by the Irish Research Council in partnership with these charities and by RCSI StAR PhD programmes.  

We promote neuroblastoma awareness through different activities. For instance, last September at the Childhood Cancer Awareness month we promoted a hiking challenge to raise money and increase awareness of neuroblastoma. We hiked for 30km at Wicklow mountains in a day and raised over € 2,000 for neuroblastoma research charities.  

We are also present in social media, creating content in the form of blog posts and tweets to share the science we are doing.  

We are always happy to answer questions and interact with the public. Follow us on our social media channels and read our blog to know more about us and our research.  

Thanks for reading and we go ahead with neuroblastoma research! 

Written by Luiza Erthal

#AskLuiza: Could we use blood tests to detect neuroblastoma?

For most neuroblastoma cases a tissue biopsy, which means remove a piece of the tumour and analyse under a microscope, is performed to confirm the diagnosis, allow the risk stratification (low, intermediate or high-risk cancer) and determine treatment.  However, it is not always possible to perform a biopsy. In these cases, other tests are available such as ultrasound, x-ray and urine test1. Although these tests help the diagnostic, they are much less informative to determine the risk group and to guide treatment.

Cancer is a genetic disease and as such several genetic alterations are present in the DNA and can be useful to determine a diagnostic and prognostic of the disease. These alterations can also be useful to monitor treatment effects. But, how we can examine the DNA without using a piece of the tumour?

The answer for that relies on our blood. Cancer patients have cancer cells circulating in their blood and these cells release what we call cell-free tumour DNA. The level of cell-free tumour DNA in the blood of a healthy individual is low while this is increased in cancer patients. The detection of cell-free tumour DNA with specific alterations may help to not only detect the disease but also determine if the tumour cells are changing after treatment.

Recently, a trial for a blood test that can detect 50 different types of cancer was launched in the UK2. The test called the Galleri test look for cell-free tumour DNA in the blood using modern genetic sequencing technology. It spots the DNA that has changes common in specific cancers but not seen in healthy cells.

One of the main questions of this trial is if the test can find early stages of cancers. Although neuroblastoma is cancer that could benefit from this test, unfortunately, it is not one of the cancer types detected. However, the presence of cell-free tumour DNA was already detected in neuroblastoma patients’ blood3. Moreover, several alterations in the DNA of neuroblastoma patients have already been reported to have predictive value for disease progression and treatment monitoring. These alterations include the increase in the number of specific genes, genes breakdown or increased activity of certain genes. Their presence may indicate poor outcomes and early detection could guide to specific treatment options.

The big challenge is to have a non-invasive diagnostic method, such as blood tests, that are sensitive enough to detect the early stages of the disease. Specifically for neuroblastoma, comprehensive analysis in clinical trials regarding cell-free DNA levels and their specific changes over time would help to advance the development of liquid biopsies, such as blood tests, for this type of tumour.

Written by Luiza Erthal

References

1. Tests for neuroblastoma, Cancer Research UK. February 25, 2021

2. The Galleri multi-cancer blood test: What you need to know, Harry Jenkins, Cancer Research UK. September 13, 2021.

3. Wei, M., Ye, M., Dong, K. & Dong, R. Circulating tumor DNA in neuroblastoma. Pediatr. Blood Cancer 67, (2020).

#AskLuiza about neuroblastoma biology

#AskLuiza

We are launching a new initiative #AskLuiza to help the public and patients know more about advances and current trends in neuroblastoma.

Luiza is a research writer at the Cancer Bioengineering Research Group. She holds a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from Trinity College Dublin. You will ask a question and Luiza will look for the answer in peer-reviewed research papers that the research community trust.

Leave your question and follow our blog to read the answer soon: https://forms.gle/vrgwKoZivyUVawk9A

A 30km Dublin Mountain Way in A Day

And the story began with a meeting of fantastic 7 at the very beginning of Dublin Mountains Way in Tallaght at 6.30 am on September 25th. The spirit, cheer, backpacks with essentials and branded tops were on, Strava was launched and we swiftly headed off.

It was quiet, dark and cheering. No one was on the streets, a few cars passed by. We took towards Bohernabreena reservoir through the sleepy estates of Tallaght, sensing the sunset. Clouds were low and the highest peaks in the Dublin Mountains including Seefingan, Corrig and the highest, Kippure were in the mist. Nevertheless, we were full of energy and hopes to see it later.

Cheat chats and jokes were here and there, we walked in small dynamic groups recalling our pre-covid life and stories that happened during the lockdown. A mix of newbies and maturating research students. We met some in person for the first time since the COVID restrictions admitting that our visual senses are extremely important to memorise a person and recognise him/her on the next occasion. We were enjoying this face-to-face communication and our team re-connection.

The first 8 km flew in a flash. We stopped for our breakfast in Dublin Mountains. The grass was wet, the sky was blue. Mountains started to draw their shape through the clouds. Yoghurts, fruits, bars immediately disappeared in our stomachs. Everyone was happy to lighten their backpack. Every little helps!

A few plasters were glued, and we continued on at a very good pace. The sky was changing with sunny spells. We travelled around Spinkeen and Killakee at their base doing up and downhills and verifying our route with the hiking app. At the 20 km mark, we stopped for lunch. Sandwiches, grapes, mandarines and sweets were shared and eaten and then polished with chocolates from the recent Nadiya’s home trip. Jellies left untouched.

At 25 km, our blisters reminded us of being humans. Our pace slowed down and we started a very mild ascent to Tibradden Mountain leaving the Pine Forest or Tibradden Wood behind. We climbed further to Fairy Castle, the highest point on the Dublin Mountains Way (537m). Throughout the entire way, Dublin showed its best views of the Phoenix Park and the Pope Cross, house roofs, Aviva Stadium, two Chimneys, Dublin Port… The scenery was fascinating and breathtaking. We saw Howth and Dun Laoghaire, Sugar Loaf… We met groups of Germans, French, Irish and many others.

At Three Rocks Mountain/Fairy Castle, we started our descent and entered Tiknock forest. This part was steep. We crossed the Gap Mountain Bike Adventure Park to reach Glencullen. Got lost at the end but just for a sec and reached the Glencullen junction at 2.30pm. It took us 8 hours with walks and stops from start to finish to complete the 30 km challenge in a day. We got tired but felt happy and satisfied.

We aimed to raise awareness of childhood cancer in general and neuroblastoma in particular as well as honour children with cancer, their parents, siblings, friends and careers, doctors and nurses, volunteers in the hospitals and researchers working to find cancer weaknesses and develop new treatments that are friendly to patients and target cancer aggressiveness.

We will count our tally in the coming days and transfer it to three wonderful charities that support childhood cancer research.

We thank everyone who supported this challenge!

Go raibh maith agat!

I’m Ronja

I’m Ronja, I’m from Germany, but have spent my entire adult life in the English-speaking parts of this world. Right after school, I interned with a PhD student working on cystic fibrosis for a couple of months. Having the chance to culture airway epithelial cells myself made me certain I was on the right track with biomedical sciences. So, I studied Biomedical Sciences (Anatomy) in Aberdeen. The best part of that degree was my introduction to dissections. I enjoyed them so much that I even considered becoming a full-time prosector. But that does not count as essential work, so I found a remote master’s degree in Health Research instead. Studying remotely gave me the fabulous opportunity to structure my own time. I could go and explore Scotland during the day and work in the evenings. But after 5 years of studying, I was finally ready to start a PhD and was ever so delighted when I heard I could weave in some dissections at RCSI. Now, I’m looking forward to discovering what Dublin has to offer and to getting stuck in my research project!

While I didn’t know much about the particulars of my PhD before starting, I had an idea about the project from the application and I knew accommodation was sorted out for me, but I had never seen the place or my future flatmates. The one thing that I was made aware of far in advance of moving to Dublin was that September was Child Cancer Awareness Month, for which the team was going to do a charity event. Based on past years I was expecting it to be a 10km run, which was pretty daunting to me. So, I prepared. I started running and cycling over the summer until 10km weren’t an issue anymore. But in the first lab meeting plans shifted. We were going to do the Dublin Mountains Way in a day. The 10km were tripled and depending on donations maybe even quadrupled. Quite a different challenge! But I believe my summer prepared me well for that too. Alongside running I started cycling a little as well. And because there was a free bike in Aberdeen for me, I cycled it down to Stirling. Let’s hope that the endurance needed to cycle 200km translate to hiking 30-42km!

Ronja Struck

Dublin Mountain Way in A Day, September 25th 2021

Here are our plans. This year we have upped the challenge, taking on the Dublin Mountain’s Way in a Day ⛰ We will hike through the Dublin Mountains from Tallaght to Glencullen, and maybe even all the way to Shankill on September 25th! Our challenge is not only to do #DMW in a Day & support three wonderful charities CMRF Crumlin/National Children’s Research Centre, Neuroblastoma UK and the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation but also beat our past fundraising records! If we raise 2K+, we’ll do 30km in a day. If 3K+ then 42km! Can u challenge us?  All funds raised will go to the 3 selected charities. Every donation big or small is hugely appreciated!

Please support us by donating to our Gofundme

https://gofund.me/ec59f131

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month 2021

Every 100th cancer patient is a child. Cancer is the 2nd most common cause of death among children after accidents. 

Childhood cancer is an umbrella term for many other types of this disease. Every September, many charities, researchers and parents of children with cancer work hard to raise awareness of this cancer. You may learn more about kids with cancer, their loving families, the doctors and caregivers who looking after them and treating them, the young survivors of cancer and those kids and teens who lost their battle, and the scientists who working hard to find a way to stop childhood cancer.

This year our research team will hike Dublin Mountain Way in One Day on the 25th of September 2021 whatever the weather in honour of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. For every one euro donated to research only 1 cent of this goes to ALL childhood health conditions including cancer. Therefore, the donations we receive will be split equally among some wonderful children’s charities. These charities include the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF), Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK), Children’s Research & Medical Foundation (CRMF) Crumlin.

If you would like to get involved in this amazing challenge and help us raise vital funds for childhood cancers, you can contribute to our fundraising page:

A warm welcome to our new PhD students!

A warm welcome to our new PhD students Ronja and Erin! Both received the prestigious Irish Research Council – Enterprise Partnership Scheme Award. Indeed, I am a proud PI. This competitive scheme brings the most promising researchers to advance our knowledge across many disciplines, e.g. Law, Astronomy, Sociology, Biomedical Sciences and many more. A key element of this scheme is to work together with an Enterprise Partner.

We will work closely with the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation – a research charity led by the family who lost their child to neuroblastoma. An inspirational example of never giving up.

We will continue to dissect neuroblastoma biology using innovative platforms such as tumour-on-chip and 3D scaffold-based models in collaboration with our colleagues in the Tissue Engineering Research Group at RCSI and the Fraunhofer Project Centre at DCU.

This announcement is timely to celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.

Two talented and dedicated young scientists are joining our team. In 4 years time, we will have another pic of their graduation on the same stairs.

Upwards and onwards!!

Remote Research Projects

Regardless COVID19 pandemic, we continue to host undergraduate students from various Universities for their research projects. Two students, Carla and Chris, from the Technical University of Dublin, carried out BSc projects remotely. Having in-house datasets and many more published in open access, their projects were focused on bioinformatics, re-analysing them and giving a second look. Both Carla’s and Chris’ research received the highest score in their classes. Many congratulations – well deserved!! We wish to thank both for their kind words and willingness to share their story.

Chris Sheridan, the final year student in Biomolecular Science at the Technical University of Dublin, 2021

My project concerned analysing the exosomal miRNA expression of neuroblastoma cells in response to chemotherapy. Though the project was not too large, it certainly was the largest project I have ever taken part in. The work Dr. Piskareva and her team are conducting is so interesting and novel that I felt very fortunate to be participating in such an exciting field. Despite the novel and complex nature of the topic, the project was extremely engaging, allowing for an opportunity to learn new valuable research and data analysis skills. I was able to get very useful and helpful feedback regularly from everyone on the research team, where there was a very welcoming and positive attitude. This made the topic seem less daunting and my goals more achievable. I was really happy with my results, and I am excited to see where they may lead in the future. Some of the miRNAs identified in the analysis may represent potential biomarkers or therapeutic targets for high-risk neuroblastoma patients. As I have yet to experience any lab-based research, it was cool to see the team’s approaches and applications of lab techniques and analysis strategies to see how research is conducted in the “Real World” after seeing these topics before only in lecture notes. Overall, the project was challenging but very rewarding and enjoyable. Throughout the project, the overall experience, the excitement of the results coming together, and the realisation that I may have something to contribute to this field of research cemented the idea in me that this is certainly the path I wish to pursue in science and for that, I would like to thank Dr. Piskareva and her team for such a positive and educational experience during my time with them.

Carla Tejeda Monné, the final year Technological University of Dublin Biomolecular Science Student, specialising in Biotechnology, Therapeutics, and Drug Development, 2021

During my final year project, I had the unique and amazing opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Olga Piskareva. The purpose of my thesis was to assess the clinical significance of Tumour Necrosis Factor Receptor Superfamily Member 1B and Member 4 (TNFRSF1B and TNFRSF4) in neuroblastoma patients. I accomplished this by analysing the gene profiles of several tumours using bioinformatic tools. In addition, I investigated the potential of microRNAs as therapeutic agents for neuroblastoma treatment. I thoroughly enjoyed carrying out this research project, and I hope the findings from my thesis can aid future research into the pathogenesis of neuroblastoma and the development of effective treatments for these children.

Best of luck to Chris and Carla in their next endeavour!

Research Summer School Skills Workshop 2021

Yep, we are living in challenging and extraordinary times. The COVID19 changes and dictates rules, but training of future health professionals is going on.

Within a fantastic RCSI summer training programme for medical students, our team ran essential practicals on the isolation of genetic material and the use of polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR, to detect differences in normal and modified genomic DNA.

Polymerase Chain Reaction, or simply PCR, was conceived and validated by biochemist Kary Mullis in 1983. This discovery revolutionised many scientific fields that dealt with genetic material and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. PCR allows rapid generation of small identical fragments of DNA. The fragments can be visualised, their size and number can be calculated. It has become a standard procedure in molecular biology and pathobiology screening. The COVID19 PCR test is actually an advanced modification of Mullis’ invention.

All students successfully set up individual PCRs to our great satisfaction, and the results are presented at the right bottom corner.