June 9th 2022 – A Big Day for Tom and me. This is the end of the 4th year PhD marathon. A long journey through scattered showers and sunny spells, gale winds and stormy snow with sunshine developing elsewhere, turning chilly under clear skies on some days with temperatures below/above zero. The full spectrum of emotions and hard work spiced up with the COVID19 restrictions’ uncertainty. All these together have moulded into a new high skilled researcher – Dr Thomas Frawley.
Despite our last blog post celebrating the regained opportunity to meet with other researchers in person and all the benefits that come with it I just had the pleasure of presenting at the first European Federation for Experimental Morphology (EFEM) Student Symposium online.
While it would have been easy for me to attend in person, as the event was hosted and organised here at RCSI, not many others would have had it quite so easy. As the name suggests, researchers from all across Europe attended. Every EFEM associated anatomical society across Europe and RCSI, as the host institution, had the opportunity to select two members to present. I was honoured to be chosen to represent RCSI. Overall, 15 different countries were represented in the student talks which made for a diverse mix that was particularly nice for the bit of organized fun at the end of the first day which encouraged networking.
Especially, because having only begun my PhD this past year I felt the category Preliminary Results and Outlook aimed at Undergrads, Masters and early-stage PhD students perfectly suited the stage of my project. This was also a brilliant way to see what other students at my level were doing in the field of anatomical research all across Europe. Having this chance to see research in progress was refreshing and uplifting contrasted with the usually more rounded later stage presentations. Having studied anatomy in my undergraduate degree I was also delighted to simply engage with more conventional anatomical research than I currently do myself.
A wonderful opportunity to gain insights into, for example, the implicit knowledge of academia was the career development part of the conference. Talks about academia, industry and publishing offered a chance to get an inside view of those career paths at different positions within them. Especially the typical day in a research journal’s editor provided a new perspective on what is important when writing papers and will have lasting benefits for me and my scientific writing.
But by far the reason why I’ll remember this conference for the longest time is that being awarded runner up in the category Preliminary Results and Outlook reassured me that I am on the right track and that there is purpose in what I do. Despite the online format of the conference, I had the honour of receiving my prize in person, because Prof. Fabio Quondamatteo, the organiser of the event is based at RCSI.
Overall, the two days were an important step in consolidating my faith in my work and the career path that I have chosen.
Written by Ronja Struck, the IRC-CFNCRF funded PhD student
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.
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
It was February 2020, just before one of the biggest global pandemics struck, that I attended the IACR as a research assistant. It was my first official conference and it is safe to say ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was my main feeling going down to Galway on the train. Fast forward 2 years and my feelings travelling to IACR 2022 in Cork could not be more different. It is amazing what starting a PhD during a pandemic can do for your confidence and skills as a researcher – a sink or swim moment if there was ever one. My first IACR in Galway was one to remember surrounded by like-minded scientists, all brimming with new ideas and exciting discoveries. As such, I had high hopes for IACR 2022. And it did not disappoint.
My PhD project focuses on the development of a vaccine to treat neuroblastoma so I was very excited to hear talks from some of the leading experts in vaccine research, both in industry and academia. I gained so much from hearing these experts discuss their research but also discussing other important topics like career progression and how to keep a work/life balance in research. It was refreshing to hear that as scientists we don’t have to (and shouldn’t) work ourselves to the bone 24/7 to be successful. As a young scientist planning to continue into academic research, this left a lasting impression on me. To top off what was already a hugely beneficial conference for me, my poster was shortlisted for a prize. I was shocked, delighted and excited all-in-one. Starting my PhD during a pandemic was not without challenges. Delays in deliveries, delays getting trained on equipment and multiple lockdowns led to what felt like (for me) quite a disjointed start. For my research to be shortlisted by experts was, to be honest, a relief. To know that my work stood out was extremely important to me and that all the hard work does pay off. When my name was called out at the Gala dinner as a Poster Prize Winner, all the doubts that I had (doubts that we all have as scientists) disappeared. I felt very proud and very grateful that my research was recognised at that level. There is no doubt that in-person conferences give a huge boost to young researchers, and I really look forward to presenting my work at the next IACR meeting.
Written by Ellen King
At the beginning of my career, I worked for two years in a Ukrainian company organizing international industrial conferences. So I have insider knowledge of how the conference works, and that the determining factor for the success is the active communication between the participants. And at the RCSI research day and Cork IACR conference, this component was perfect. At both events, I presented my poster and had a chance to discuss the recent advances in neuroblastoma epigenetic drug research. During RCSI Research day, I was excited to learn about the accomplishments of other undergraduate studies and was thrilled to learn that my classmate is participating in research too. He had developed an online recourse to practice cardiac auscultation, which is extremely useful for my medical studies. But professionally, I enjoyed the cancer research posters and presentations at the IACR conference and was eager to meet the researchers working on medulloblastoma, a paediatric neural cell cancer, and the research team from UCD, the neighbours of our university who worked on breast cancer. It was the most valuable opportunity to take a glimpse into other research, become inspired by the most ingenious methods, and cultivate professional knowledge and personal connections – I am so lucky I have been at RCSI Research day and the IACR conference! I have greatly enjoyed my time, and I am looking forward to (hopefully) going to the next year’s conferences again.
Written by Nadiya Bayeva
Cancer Bioengineering Group thoroughly enjoyed getting back to in-person Research Day at RCSI after 2 years, we’re now very much looking forward to the IACR conference later this month! We will have 2 oral and 5 poster presentations at IACR 2022.
A typical day for me is difficult to describe because there are many facets to a PhD in the Cancer Bioengineering research group. Some days I spend in the lab sectioning, staining or looking at tumour samples under the microscope. Others I stay at home, read papers and try to figure out how they can help me to achieve my research goals. Some days I take part in the courses and workshops offered in the scope of a structural PhD. Then there are times when I sit here writing up for you guys what it is that I do those other days. The academic environment also provides lots of other opportunities to apply yourself and broaden your horizons or pursue what you enjoy. I, for example, have the chance to partake in weekly dissections for medical teaching which helps to keep my anatomical knowledge fresh and is an always welcome change of scenery (and smell) when I am stuck on other things. Furthermore, I get to see the other side of conferences and what is involved in their planning, because I am part of the local organising committee for the European Federation for Experimental Morphology Symposium 2022.
Currently, not yet half a year into my PhD, a lot of my time is spent planning. That’s planning which methods to use, which products to order and which experiments, and analyses would result in the most coherent and rounded off story being told by the summation of my research. I also spend a lot of time optimising the methods I will use to assure reproducibility and avoid issues during the analysis later on. For example, the whole tumour sample stained with Alcian blue you can see in Figure 1A clearly shows discernible blue and red regions. However, I have spent about 2 months now trying to get to a point of producing this same outcome reliably rather than having samples show up entirely blue or very only faintly stained. Picrosirius red, the solution I used to stain the sample in Figure 1D stains collagen. But there are many different stains for collagen. After researching most if not all of them I chose this one because it can be viewed with different types of microscopies providing slightly different information. Another step of planning includes how many pictures of which magnification will be required, one image of a whole section for orientation such as in Figure 1A and then more zoomed-in images to investigate the structure of collagen such as in Figure 1D.
Between course work and planning and optimising different aspects of my project, my PhD provides me with plenty of opportunities to focus on something else whenever I get stuck to later return with a fresh set of eyes.
Written by Ronja Struck, a 1st Yr PhD student funded by the IRC-CFNCRF
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
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
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).