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.

 

Irish Neuroblastoma Research Charity

Continuing the fundraising theme, I would like to introduce The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation. It is founded by the family aiming to raise awareness and funding for neuroblastoma – one of the most aggressive childhood cancer.  This charity is being driven by parents who lost their son to neuroblastoma. They want to fill this gap as well as bring attention to the lack of funding for childhood cancer research.

Their son Conor was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of four. He was a teenager when he relapsed. He had been 10 years cancer-free. After all possible treatments, neuroblastoma took over.

His mom Margaret says:

“We always dealt with Conor’s illness privately. There were no Facebook pages tracking Conor’s progress. The day we launched the website for Conor’s charity was very emotional for me. I feel like he is out there now in the big world now with his charity. He will never get to do the things that most 18-year-olds do. He won’t go inter-railing in the summer, he’ll never go bungee jumping off some bridge, but I feel that he’s part of the world, doing something good for other children and their families. We valued our time with Conor so much, we want to help researchers who will give families, even more time, more options, perhaps even a cure for their children when they get the same awful news that we did. I think he would approve of that.”

The Foleys

We are continuing Conor’s legacy in removing and breaking down medical science barriers, and we have set up this foundation with the ultimate objective of finding a cure for NBL.Our aim is to secure continuous annual funding for NBL research in Ireland. With this funding we want to help develop an NBL research consortium to link with international research groups and collaborations.

 

August is a very quiet month

It is very quiet in the lab this month. No troubleshooting, no more long working hours, endless repetition of experiments, smiles and upsets… Almost all students completed their projects, submitted their works for grading and graduated. The last student is finishing at the end of August.

Time to focus on the collected data, reading literature, writing papers and new grants.

http://www.ifunny.com/pictures/its-rather-interesting-phenomenon-every-time-i/

CMRF Spring Newsletter features neuroblastoma research

The research is a long-term investment. It is always built up on the work of the predecessors. Keep research running is crucial to make the dreams come true. Dreams for better treatment options and quality of life.

 

Thank you to everyone involved in raising funds for CMRF!

CMRF Spring Newsletter can be found here – CMRF-Spring Newsletter Final 15.05.17

Why do we need fundraising for cancer research?

There is no short answer. Research is a slow, meticulous process of testing theories and finding out which ones work.It is exactly the same for both curiosity- and disease- driven questions. Long years of ground research full of ups and downs are critical for any breakthrough or progress. Very often with more downs than ups. Importantly, all researchers build on the work of their predecessors. This is the nature of science.

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!

 

The IACR Meeting 2017 is targeting childhood cancer challenges and advancements

This week Newpark Hotel Kilkenny is hosting the Irish Association for Cancer Research annual meeting 2017. This meeting is the biggest event for Irish cancer researchers.

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).

May whatever we do at the lab today make a difference in another person’s life someday in the future.

Mei Rin Liew

I am a medical student at Penang Medical College under a twinning programme with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. I studied my pre-clinical years at RCSI Dublin. In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to join the RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) Programme. I was mentored by Dr Olga Piskareva, from Cancer Genetics, Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics (MCT) Department, RCSI.  Being in this lab was simply one of the greatest experiences I have in my life; it was really rewarding.

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.

Neuroblastoma cell line SK-N-AS. The cell line in my experiments.

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.

Introduction to Malaysian cuisine.

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!

Under this RSS, all the participants attended skills workshops and weekly Discovery Series lectures. We were also given a Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee to read; evidently a good read. Here are the links to the RCSI Research Summer School Student Testimonial Videos.

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.

Mei Rin Liew

Quality of life for childhood cancer survivors

For children who do survive cancer, the battle is rarely over.  Over 60% of long‐term childhood cancer survivors have a chronic illness as a consequence of the treatment they received; over 25% have a severe or life‐ threatening illness. How much do we know about quality of life of childhood cancer survivors?

Researchers in health- and illness-related social sciences understand that the there is a life after the treatment completed. The life is full if diverse levels and issues from health related to social adaptation in different shapes and forms. Children and teenagers may experience fear when returning to school due to temporary or permanent changes to their physical appearance (1,2). They worry about their ability to socialise with their friends due to lengthy absences (3–5). Treatment can result in the development of learning disabilities in children and thus marking school as a major source of frustration (1,2). These learning difficulties can affect a child’s confidence and self-esteem, if left without attention and care (1,3). All studies come to the same conclusion. Challenges in education of children with cancer are complex, however most can be tackled efficiently through planning and good communication (1–5).

Recently researchers working in FRED HUTCH Cancer Research Center asked adult childhood cancer survivors a number of health related questions about the quality of lives (6,7). The results are far from optimistic: “chance of surviving childhood cancer has improved — but survivors’ overall health has not”. You can find more by following the link.

It is important not only to recognise the problems but to start changing the situation. Apparently much more could be done more efficiently if patients are involved in setting up future research agenda.

Reading

  1. Gurney JG, Krull KR, Kadan-Lottick N, Nicholson HS, Nathan PC, Zebrack B, et al. Social outcomes in the childhood cancer survivor study cohort. J Clin Oncol. 2009;27(14):2390–5.
  2. McDougall J, Tsonis M. Quality of life in survivors of childhood cancer: A systematic review of the literature (2001-2008). Supportive Care in Cancer. 2009. p. 1231–46.
  3. Barrera M, Shaw AK, Speechley KN, Maunsell E, Pogany L. Educational and social late effects of childhood cancer and related clinical, personal and familial characteristics. Cancer. 2005;104(8):1751–60.
  4. Langeveld NE, Stam H, Grootenhuis MA, Last BF. Quality of life in young adult survivors of childhood cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2002;10(8):579–600.
  5. Klassen AF, Anthony SJ, Khan A, Sung L, Klaassen R. Identifying determinants of quality of life of children with cancer and childhood cancer survivors: A systematic review. Support Care Cancer. 2011;19(9):1275–87.
  6. Yeh JM, Hanmer J, Ward ZJ, Leisenring WM, Armstrong GT, Hudson MM, et al. Chronic Conditions and Utility-Based Health-Related Quality of Life in Adult Childhood Cancer Survivors. J Natl Cancer Inst [Internet]. 2016;108(9):4–7.
  7. Armstrong GT, Chen Y, Yasui Y, Leisenring W, Gibson TM, Mertens AC, et al. Reduction in Late Mortality among 5-Year Survivors of Childhood Cancer. N Engl J Med. 2016;374(9):833–42.

Cell to Cell Communicators

Tumour cells send different types of messages from one cell to another aka people post letters, postcards, and parcels to their families, friends, colleagues or  business. Cells can direct their messages using free moving proteins – postcards. They can wrap it in microvesicles with different cargo. Big microvesicles can take up big messages – parcels, small microvesicles or exosomes contain a limited number of texts – letters.

Tumour cells change their behaviour quickly adapting to anticancer therapies, so the messages they are sending. These messages can easily join blood stream and be read by researchers to understand how treatment is working and tumour cells are feeling.  Reading these messages from blood is more favourable as blood tests are done on the regular bases during and after the treatment.

In our lab we investigate how neuroblasts communicate with each other and the entire body through exosomes. We are interested to see what they write in their letters – exosomes. Do drug resistant and sensitive neuroblasts write different texts? What is the difference and how we can use this difference to predict child response to anticancer therapy?

In one set of experiments, we found that exosomes from drug resistant neuroblasts stimulate growth of sensitive cells. The more resistant neuroblasts send more powerful messages pushing cells to grow faster.

In the other set of experiments, we partially cracked the message showing that their texts are different. This finding explains why more resistant neuroblasts send more growth stimulating messages.

All these findings will be presented at the upcoming conference Goodbye Flat Biology: Models, Mechanisms and Microenvironment in Berlin.

 

schematic-exo2a

Schematic of exosome biogenesis and secretion. Cells produce exosomes through different pathways. This process is tightly regulated and controlled by numerous molecules. It can be triggered by many factors including extracellular stimuli (e.g., microbial attack, UV, drugs) and other stresses. The exosomes wrap up biologically active components such as proteins, RNA and miRNA. Exosomes can interact with recipient cells using four mechanisms: ligand/receptor interaction, protein transfer, membrane fusion or internalisation. Once exosomes entered the recipient cell, they release their content and re-programme the cell functions.

 

Suggested reading

Johnsen KB, Gudbergsson JM, Skov MN, Pilgaard L, Moos T, Duroux M. A comprehensive overview of exosomes as drug delivery vehicles – Endogenous nanocarriers for targeted cancer therapy. Biochim Biophys Acta – Rev Cancer. 2014;1846(1):75–87.

El Andaloussi S, Mäger I, Breakefield XO, Wood MJ a, Andaloussi S EL, Mäger I, et al. Extracellular vesicles: biology and emerging therapeutic opportunities. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2013;12(5):347–57.

The schematic of exosomes was adapted from here