#GoForGoldCycle2022

We are the Cancer Bioengineering Group, and September is a very special month for us as it is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Childhood cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in children after accidents. Our group researches childhood cancer neuroblastoma, a cancer of immature nerve cells. Neuroblastoma is responsible for approximately 15% of all childhood cancer deaths. Despite intensive multimodal treatment, as many as 1 in 5 children with the aggressive disease do not respond, and up to 50% of children that do respond experience disease recurrence with many metastatic tumours resistant to many drugs and more aggressive tumour behaviour that all too frequently results in death.

This is what we want to change! We believe that every child deserves a future, and our team of postgraduate researchers led by Dr Olga Piskareva is dedicated to strengthening our knowledge of this disease and identifying new potential ways to tackle it, as well as taking part in fundraising activities so our group and others can continue with this research.  

On Wednesday, the 21st of September, RCSI 123 SSG will #GoGold in support of this cause. Please come by to see the RCSI building lit up and share your pictures on social media with the hashtag #ChildhoodCancerAwarenessMonth to raise awareness.

How are you, PI?

Yeah, our (my) blogging is sporadic. The pattern is well recognisable – more posts with success stories or accomplishments or about the key activities. It is easy to share :). Please excuse us (me) when we are off the radar, but we remember our supporters and readers. We are back on track to celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September.

So, how did my summer go? Well, nothing to complain about. I had time to go back to the labs, pick up on the outstanding task, and take on the white coat. Indeed, it comes with some assurance as well as troubleshooting. Some days were better than others. Some experiments worked, and another was inconsistent or inconclusive.

A fancy photo, but the routine cell culture itself can be very boring.

Where did I pick it up? This research journey is one year old already. 🙂 This project is focused on validation our 3D neuroblastoma model to test novel therapeutics. We set an experiment that required different expertise and contribution from every team member. In an ideal world, it was supposed to finish in 6 months. But the reality doesn’t stop to shake you. Various components have been delayed sometimes due to unforeseen circumstances (e.g. a broken equipment or out of stock reagent) or due to the lack of manpower or miscommunication at a given time. Eventually, we put the work on hold in October 2021, when we completed ~60%. Another go to continue was taken in April 2022. No luck! Then plan B was activated, and I have been back in the labs. Despite these challenges, this time has not been lost. We developed new ideas to complement the original plan. Now, the crucial 20% has to be done and dusted within 2 weeks time before teaching starts. Wish us a luck!

After the challenge of leading the Foundation Year Medicine Cycle, I am 100% positive that I love research with all up and downs. This routine is fascinating, it is not static. One day differs from another. Research questions are flowing in non-stop…

September 2022 is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Today marks the start of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which we celebrate every year to support and learn more about kids with cancer, their loving families, the doctors and caregivers who look after them and treat 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.

Childhood cancer is an umbrella term for many other types of this disease. Every 100th cancer patient is a child. Cancer is the 2nd most common cause of death among children after accidents. When it comes to a disease, we have to acknowledge that children are not little adults. They are constantly developing. So their diseases have different ways of progressing and responding to treatment. The causes of childhood cancer, including neuroblastoma, are not known. It would be right to expect more blind alleys and failed ideas in understanding these cancers. To address these challenges, more curiosity-driven and translationally focused research is needed.

The illustration was created by Luiza Erthal

The most common childhood cancers:

  • 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)

Congratulations Dr Frawley!

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.

My greatest thanks to Tom’s examiners Profs Elena Aikawa (Harvard Medical School, USA) and Marc Devocelle (RCSI, Ireland)!!

This work would not be possible without the generous support from the Irish Research Council and National Children’s Research Centre.

Return of the in-person conference – IACR2022

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.

Catherine Murphy, PhD student at IACR2022

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

First Research Meeting For A Medical Student

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

RCSI Research Day 2022

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.

Dream Team in action

Ronja: My typical day

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.

Figure 1 Working on neuroblastoma cancer the samples I am working with are quite unsurprisingly tumour cells. But these can be grown, for example, in mice (A) or on manmade scaffolds (D).  I am moving a staining rack that holds the microscopy slides through staining containers filled with different solutions (C) to stain the slides. After the slides are stained the excess stain is removed by washing in distilled water (B). The resulting images depend on the type of stain. Stains like Alcian Blue can only be viewed with brightfield microscopy (A). But Picrosirius red can also be viewed under polarised light or as seen here (D) with fluorescent microscopy.

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

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: How Does The Microenvironment Influence Neuroblastoma Cells?

Understanding how tumour cells interact with the other cells in the body is crucial for an effective treatment. Moreover, it can help to identify patterns that are exclusive of tumour cells to be a target in treatment.

The interactions of tumour cells with the surrounding tissue, the microenvironment, affects chemotherapy sensitivity, immune cells recognition and expression of molecules on the cell surface, to only cite a few interferences.

This is particularly crucial in metastatic cells, which are cells that have spread to other parts of the body coming from the primary tumour location. Specifically, for neuroblastoma half of patients with high-risk disease present a metastatic tumour at the diagnosis. In addition, one of the organs that are mostly populated by metastatic neuroblastoma cells is the bone marrow.

A review paper recently published address some important aspects about the interactions between neuroblastoma cells, bone and bone marrow resident cells1. This review argues in favour of understanding these interactions to search for new targets for therapy.

However, neuroblastoma cells proved to be difficult to characterise due to dynamic changes induced by external stimuli. Therefore, neuroblastoma cells change upon exposure to the bone marrow microenvironment.

The authors present some studies showing that neuroblastoma cells infiltrating the bone marrow express receptors for small proteins called chemokines that induce cell adhesion in the bone marrow. On the contrary, the cells did not present on their surface molecules that stimulate the immune system recognition. Therefore, they are naturally invisible to the action of this system.

Moreover, it has been shown that metastatic tumour cells release extracellular vesicles expressing GD2. These vesicles have an important role in cell-cell communication and the GD2 is a marker exclusive of neuroblastoma cells. Thus, it facilitates the identification of metastatic cells.

These alterations on neuroblastoma cells surface after they interact with bone marrow cells may facilitate the invasion and spread of the tumour. Thus, looking closely to that may help to develop more effective treatments for neuroblastoma.

At the Cancer Bioengineering Research Group, many of our projects are related to tumour resistance, cell interaction and the tumour microenvironment. These three aspects are very important to understand neuroblastoma at the tissue level. We study them and expand this research to applied projects aiming at the development of new therapeutic modalities.

For instance, we are currently evaluating the effect of extracellular vesicles from different neuroblastoma cell lines in the induction of proliferation and increased viability. Moreover, we are studying the interaction of neuroblastoma cells with immune cells such as macrophages. Finally, we are also identifying targets to develop an anti-tumour nucleic acid-based vaccine against neuroblastoma.

We go from basic to applied research interconnecting the findings and expanding the understanding of neuroblastoma biology. Ultimately, we aim to improve treatment and quality of life for patients.

Written by Luiza Erthal

References

1.         Brignole, C. et al. Bone Marrow Environment in Metastatic Neuroblastoma. Cancers 13, 2467 (2021).