Labour Day BBQ

Ok. This Monday is Labour Day – a public holiday celebrated on the 1st Monday in September in the US. According to the US Department of Labor, this holiday marks “a creation of the Labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers”.   In contrast in Europe and Russia, it is celebrated on May 1st and known as May Day or International Workers’ Day and may or may not be a public holiday.

It is also the unofficial end of summer when many people arrange family gatherings or holidays. So, did our lab. We were all invited to our boss’ house to have a BBQ and chit-chat. As you may expect almost everyone in the lab has a multicultural background which is very proud of. You are in America, babe! I am not an exception.  A proud Irish-Russian.

Irish black and white pudding, red and white cheddar and homebaked soda bread were among top 10 favourites

Everyone took advantage of and benefited from that mix. We had Mexican, Argentinian, French, Irish, Jewish, Ethiopian and American Indiana, Idaho, Florida, Maryland bites. Juicy steaks (raw, medium and well done) and burgers grilled by the host Andy were delicious. Have to admit that meat was tastier than I used to buy in Ireland. Should probably look for a new butcher when I come back!

What did surprise me the most?  I have been thinking about it on the way home… None of 15 guests did check their mobile or take a pic of food/selfie during that time! Though everyone had this thing in the pocket. We were chatting and laughing. Maybe it is just that people… Fantastic company and a great day out.

 

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month!

Today marks the start of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Three girls fountain in Mainz Germany 

The cause of childhood cancers is believed to be due to faulty genes in stem cells that give rise to nerves, skin, blood and other body tissues. For some unknown reasons, the faulty genes can sit quiet and show their ‘bad’ character after birth and programme the cells into cancer cells.
So, there is no evidence that links lifestyle or environmental risk factors to the development of childhood cancer, which is opposite to many adult’s cancers.

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

Children are not little adults and so their cancer. Some childhood cancers have a good outlook and successful protocol of treatments. However, some of the cancers do not respond to the known drugs, or if respond cancer cells find the way to develop resistance and come back being more aggressive. Among theme are some forms of brain tumours, neuroblastoma and sarcomas; cancers developing in certain age groups and/or located within certain sites in the body, along with acute myeloid leukaemia (blood cancer). Children with a rare brain cancer – diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma survive less than 1 year from diagnosis. Children with soft tissue tumours have 5-year survival rates ranging from 64% (rhabdomyosarcoma) to 72% (Ewing sarcoma). Less than50% of children with the aggressive form of neuroblastoma will live beyond 5 years with current treatment strategies.

For majority of children who do survive cancer, the battle is never over. Over 60% of long‐term childhood cancer survivors have a chronic illness as a consequence of the treatment; over 25% have a severe or life-threatening illness.

The most common types of childhood cancer are:

  • Leukaemia and lymphoma (blood cancers)
  • Brain and other central nervous system tumours
  • Muscle cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma)
  • Kidney cancer (Wilms tumour)
  • Neuroblastoma (tumour of the non-central nervous system)
  • Bone cancer (osteosarcoma)
  • Testicular and ovarian tumours (gonadal germ cell tumours)

Please see a short video The Childhood Cancer Ripple Effect created by St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

And finally, the Fulbright journey has started

Air Canada was my first bridge to connect me and Baltimore. A new luxury plane with great service brought me over Atlantic to Montreal in 7 hours. Watched many films and TV movies starting with ‘ Battle of the Sexes’ and finishing with re-running some episodes of ‘Young Sheldon’. Food was excellent, fast service, great taste. The US Customs met me with two state flags flanking a copy of the Liberty statue at the Canadian Airport, so had no need to do anything at the final destination. My 2nd leg was way shorter – just 1.30hrs!

At BWI a lovely American family picked me and my bag up and brought to their sister’s house – my American home for the next 4 months. It is promised to be a true cultural experience. How I found them? It is a story for a separate post to follow.

My American house is in Baltimore outskirts and in 30 min drive from door to door. My first drive to work was a break of all statistical predictions about tyre’s punctures. One of the tyres went flat almost on the half-way in probably not a very safe neighbourhood. With no cell phone, no roaming and no a spare ‘donut’!

Melvin fixes the new tyre

What happened next? ‘Emergency lights’-ON, pulling my hand out to stop anyone with a cell phone. After a couple of dozens passing by cars, one pulled down, a nice couple of doctors offered me their help. Phoned to my host family and explained the situation. “Stay in the car with locked doors, we are on the way”. While I was waiting for them a nice man from the Afro-American neighborhood tried to help me out. “No, no… thank you… I am fine… Help is on the way…” in a sort of fear I replied.

Next, both I and Rod  (the head of the family) were looking for a spare ‘donut’ and tools to lift up the car. Nothing. The same nice man came again offering his help. We did not resist. He pulled his brand new shiny Lincoln Continental and brought all you can dream of in my situation. A jack to lift the car, an electric screwdriver to get the tyre off… His name is Melvin.  I and Rod run into the nearest garage to fix the tyre, while Melvin was looking after my car.

The main entrance of Johns Hopkins

Forty-five minutes later, I continued my journey and arrived 2 hours later than planned. Rush to hunt the ID and car parking. A long queue of new commenced stuff needed exactly the same and disappeared in 25 min. Interestingly, I got the spot in 5 min for my use during the next 4 months as all the rest from the queue. Imagine, to get something like this in Dublin Centre area. Now, my car is parked in 5 min walk from the building I work in. A nice end of the first day!

Saying Good Bye to Our Summer Students

When I look back at the end of July, I am always surprised how quickly 8 summer weeks passed by. Summer students usually come very shy and uncertain and then they are flying through many complicated research terms and techniques. We help them to learn and they pay back by fantastic enthusiasm, commitment, and hard work. This summer was the same!

One of our experiences was donut’s tasting. We tasted donuts from Boston Donuts, the Rolling Donut, Boomerang Donuts and Krust Bakery. Many shapes, textures, and tastes. Krust Bakery did our favourites. 🙂

Saying Good bye to our summer students

 

Research Summer School 2018

Another year, another Research Summer School students. We are hosting 4 students (Jessica, Dawn, Dola, and Jeff) this year. Some of them will be medical doctors, another will do research after the graduation. For them, the 8-weeks lab placement is a window into the reality of the everyday science. How cancer cells look? How do they grow? Where do we store them? How do we know that we have identified a new drug or a new target to study further? Do researchers have a sense of humour? Do they like donuts?

Why do they wear these astronaut helmets?

We have already said Good Bye to Jessica. Dola and Dawn’s projects are coming to an end this week, while Jeff is staying till the end of August.

Groundwork

Though the official announcement is scheduled for the first week of June, the groundwork is on. Lots of reading and planning for the trip to Johns Hopkins later this year. One of the first is the book by Rebecca Skloot ‘The Immortal Life Of  Henrietta Lacks”. The famous HeLa cells were generated by researchers at JH. The story is a fascinating journey for biomedical scientists and a tragedy for the Lacks family.

How is it feeling?

The fact of being shortlisted is very encouraging. It means that my research proposal and the career achievements fit the merit of this award.  No doubt it was fantastic experience overall, not often the shortlisted candidates have an opportunity to speak for themselves.

How is it feeling after the interview?… Well, I do not have a firm answer… It is a big difference when you explain yourself in written and spoken forms… No chance to edit your real-time talk… How many times have that 30 minutes played back and re-run in my head? I lost the count… Did I bring the point across? Did I do things in right time and at a right pace? Should I have structured the answer differently? Each re-run brings new ways to answer the same questions, indeed, in a better and more concise way…   Having the mind that is constantly analysing the situation is not helpful.

Think, the competition was very tough, and only 1 in 10 made to the 2 days interview for the Fulbright Award (maybe the ratio even higher). Twelve candidates were interviewed yesterday and the same numbers are to be today.  What are the chances to get to the final? I have to wait until March… and meanwhile, keep applying for grants and doing something meaningful.

My next stop is at the Irish Cancer Society this Thursday to film a short video about my research and neuroblastoma challenges. The video should be available for the International Childhood Cancer Research Day on February 15th.

Goodbye 2017! Hello 2018!

When I look back on my journey in 2017, there were many junctions, traffic lights and stops as well as ups and downs. Junctions were to make decisions, while traffic lights and stops – to be patient. Ups and downs were my feelings of satisfaction. The good mix of both kept me to stay human. It is not the number of grants received that matters it is who around you. I have met genuinely curiosity-driven students who made this journey fascinating and very special.

My most memorable Ups  were the successful examination and graduation of my PhD student John Nolan, organisation and chairing the IACR Meeting session: Challenges in Childhood Cancers, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the Gala Dinner with the CFNCRF, the launch of my very own research team thanks to the funding by the NCRC and the Neuroblastoma UK, the successful completion of two final year undergraduate and two MSc projects, and welcoming the new PhD student Tom Frawley.

My team is growing and I am looking forward to 2018!

Goodbye 2017 and Hello 2018!

Bad days come and go …

The researcher’s path includes days when you feel so low because your grant or paper was rejected or even both within a very short time frame. It happened to me a couple of weeks ago. At this point, I felt helpless sarcastic and non-motivative reading reviewer’s comments. One reviewer mixed up neuroblastoma with a brain tumour,  so their comments were not relevant. Another just found no time to read through, the sentence was very short – ‘not a priority or interest‘. One more went to their area of expertise asking to fulfil it rather than comment on the actual focus of the study. Such comments are so common that any submission of results or a proposal could be considered as a draw. It has been neither my first time not the last. More to come.

At that time a friend of mine shared the reflection by a breast cancer survivor and now volunteer patient advocate at Europa Donna IrelandThe Irish Breast Cancer Campaign.

Lastly, I would also like to say that research makes a difference to my life in another way, a less concrete but equally important way: it gives me hope. To know that excellent, focused research is happening in this country, to think that even I might be able to contribute to the success of this work, even to imagine that my daughter might grow up without fear of breast cancer – this gives me enormous hope.” (The full story can be read here)

 

These words make a big difference for me as a researcher. They motivate to go further and make the difference for little patients.