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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
Anti-cancer vaccines teach the body’s immune system to identify and attack tumour cells. They are a type of immunotherapy and can be used to treat cancer or prevent tumour recurrence. Therefore, they are typically used in patients that have already received other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Although anti-cancer vaccines have been gaining more attention over the years, few are being developed for paediatric tumours. From 594 clinical trials in neuroblastoma at clinicaltrials.gov, only 12 active trials are evaluating vaccines. Furthermore, these vaccines are still considered investigational products. They do not have the approval for use granted by health authorities. Therefore, these drugs are available for patients that enter into clinical trials.
An example of these vaccines is the bivalent vaccine for high-risk neuroblastoma developed in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the US, collaborating with the biopharmaceutical company Y-mAbs Therapeutics. This vaccine is called bivalent because it has two proteins specifically present on the surface of neuroblastoma cells.
The rationale behind the treatment using this vaccine is that the body will be stimulated to produce antibodies against these two proteins. These antibodies will recognise and attach to neuroblastoma cancer cells, thus signalling to the immune system that these cells need to be eliminated. A phase II trial evaluates vaccine efficacy in 374 patients who received seven subcutaneous injections of the vaccine in combination with an oral intake of an adjuvant, called β-glucan, that boosts the immune system1. The adjuvant intake started either on the first vaccine injection or on the third injection every two weeks until the end of the vaccine schedule. The study aims to analyse the anti-tumour effect of the vaccine and the immune response generated by the vaccine plus β-glucan therapy. The study is estimated to be completed by 2023. The trials active for neuroblastoma vaccines are phase I or II. After these phases, there are still phases III and IV to complete the evaluation and continue monitoring these therapies. Therefore, in a few more years, we will know if neuroblastoma vaccines will be successful or not.
Written by Luiza Erthal
1. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Phase I/II Trial of a Bivalent Vaccine With Escalating Doses of the Immunological Adjuvant OPT-821, in Combination With Oral β-glucan for High-Risk Neuroblastoma. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00911560 (2021).
Looking carefully we can easily see that children are very different from adults. They have different needs, desires, likes and dislikes. Not surprisingly, the children body is also very different in their functioning and response to medical needs. Therefore, cancer in children has many different characteristics when compared to cancer in adults. Childhood cancer is different in terms of the most common types, the causes, the treatment and the course of the disease.
Firstly, childhood cancer is rare and this sometimes impairs an early diagnosis. Therefore more aggressive diseases tend to be present at the time of diagnosis. Nevertheless, there are specific types of cancer that are more common in children, which helps in the diagnosis. They are cancers affecting the blood and lymph nodes (leukaemia and lymphoma), the brain (astrocytoma), the liver and the bones (osteosarcoma). These types of cancer are less common in adults.
Another important difference between adult and childhood cancer is the leading cause of the disease. Most of the time the cause of childhood cancer is unknown, although genetic contributions related to overexpression or deletion of genes can be determined. On the other hand, adult cancers are frequently associated with alterations in the DNA (mutations) as well as lifestyle.
The treatment plays an important role in the differences between adult and childhood cancers. Usually, similar treatments are used for both adults and children, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, transplants and immune therapy, according to the type of cancer and its stage. However, the doses and types of drugs may differ between them. The differences in the treatment go beyond the doses and encompass the mechanisms of action and possible long term toxicities of drugs. For example, the use of drugs that damage DNA can be prohibitive in children due to the increased risk of secondary cancers in the future.
In conclusion, specific types of cancer are more common in children and the cause of this disease is frequently unknown. Fortunately, children have great possibilities to survive cancers but the treatment needs to be carefully chosen and its long-term effect on the body have to be monitored for their whole life.
Written by Luiza Erthal
Kattner, P. et al. Compare and contrast: pediatric cancer versus adult malignancies. CancerMetastasis Rev. 38, 673–682 (2019).
Immunotherapies are treatments that stimulate the patient’s immune system to help it to fight cancer. This type of treatment is gaining more attention in neuroblastoma due to the possibility to combine it with other therapies, potentially, generating fewer side effects.
Clinical trials are research protocols performed in patients to evaluate whether a new treatment is safe and effective. This type of research can also compare standard treatments with new treatment options as well as investigate new combinations of drugs. Clinical trials occur in phases comprising phase I (safety), phase 2 (safety and efficacy), phase 3 (safety, efficacy and comparison with standard treatments for the specific disease).
According to a search performed on November 14th, 2021, there are 594 clinical trials for neuroblastoma at clinicaltrials.gov, a clinical trial database from the United States (US). From these, 173 are recruiting or active trials and 15 are related to immunotherapies. Generally, these are initial trials evaluating treatment combinations using chemotherapy, cell transplants and immunotherapy, including antibodies and vaccines.
Trials for antibodies
The most explored target for immunotherapy in neuroblastoma is the GD2, a molecule present in the surface of neuroblastoma cells that can be used to combat the tumour. Indeed, antibodies that bind to GD2 called dinutuximab and naxitamab are approved for use in the US to treat neuroblastoma1,2.
A clinical trial in the US and Canada is recruiting patients to evaluate the combination of dinutuximab with another antibody called Magrolimab in patients with neuroblastoma that do not respond to or come back after treatment3. This is an initial trial (Phase 1), which aims to determine the best doses and side effects of this combination.
Racotumomab, an antibody that binds to N-glycolyl GM3, a molecule that is highly expressed in the surface of neuroblastoma cells, is being evaluated in high-risk neuroblastoma5. The study aims to determine the immune response generated by the drug and the related toxicity.
Trials for vaccines
A trial from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is recruiting patients to study the GVAX Vaccine and its combination with the antibodies, nivolumab and ipilimumab, that stimulates T-cells to attack the cancer 6. The vaccine is produced with neuroblastoma cells from the patient. The study will evaluate the dose and safety of the combination treatment.
Another trial is evaluating the use of a modified neuroblastoma cell vaccine in combination with low doses of chemotherapy (Cytoxan/Cyclophosphamide)7. A vaccination scheme comprising 8 doses of vaccine and cycles of oral chemotherapy is planned and patients will be closely monitored through the vaccination period to evaluate side effects and disease status. This study is ongoing and will follow the patients for 15 years after completing the vaccination scheme.
Trials for cell therapy
A trial evaluating the use of modified T-cells (CART-T-cell) to recognise GD2- neuroblastoma cells in combination with chemotherapies (cyclophosphamide and fludarabine) and an antibody (Pembrolizumab) is ongoing8. The combination is based on previous studies that have demonstrated the longer time presence of CAR T-cell in the blood of patients after intravenous infusion of chemotherapy. Moreover, the antibody will help to stimulate the patient immune system. The trial aims to determine the highest dose possible for the combination treatment generating fewer side effects.
Another Phase I immunotherapy trial for neuroblastoma aims to compare the treatment with dinutuximab and lenalidomide (drugs that support the immune system) and Natural Killer (NK) cells from the patient9. The NK cells can kill cancer cells while the two immunotherapeutic drugs activate the NK cells. This study will determine the safest dose of cells to be used in combination with the drugs.
Considering some of the clinical trials in progress that uses immunotherapy to treat neuroblastoma, we can conclude that this therapy modality holds great promise to advance and potentially serve as a new treatment option to improve neuroblastoma patients’ survival and quality of life.
Written by Luiza Erthal
1. Drugs Approved for Neuroblastoma – National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/drugs/neuroblastoma (2011).
2. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Expanded Access Use of Naxitamab/GM-CSF Immunotherapy for Consolidation of Complete Remission or Relapsed/Refractory High-Risk Neuroblastoma. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04501757 (2021).
3. National Cancer Institute (NCI). Phase 1 Trial of Hu5F9-G4 (Magrolimab) Combined With Dinutuximab in Children and Young Adults With Relapsed and Refractory Neuroblastoma or Relapsed Osteosarcoma. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04751383 (2021).
4. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Hu3F8/GM-CSF Immunotherapy Plus Isotretinoin for Consolidation of First Remission of Patients With High-Risk Neuroblastoma: A Phase II Study. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03033303 (2020).
5. Laboratorio Elea Phoenix S.A. Open-label, Multicenter, Phase II Immunotherapy Study With Racotumomab in Patients With High-risk Neuroblastoma. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02998983 (2021).
6. Collins, N. B. A Phase 1 Study of Combination Nivolumab and Ipilimumab With Irradiated GM-CSF Secreting Autologous Neuroblastoma Cell Vaccine (GVAX) for Relapsed or Refractory Neuroblastoma. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04239040 (2021).
7. Heczey, A. A Phase I/II Study Using Allogeneic Tumor Cell Vaccination With Oral Metronomic Cytoxan in Patients With High-Risk Neuroblastoma (ATOMIC). https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/study/NCT01192555 (2021).
8. Heczey, A. Autologous Activated T-Cells Transduced With A 3rd Generation GD-2 Chimeric Antigen Receptor And iCaspase9 Safety Switch Administered To Patients With Relapsed Or Refractory Neuroblastoma (GRAIN). https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01822652 (2021).
9. New Approaches to Neuroblastoma Therapy Consortium. A Phase I Dose Escalation Study of Autologous Expanded Natural Killer (NK) Cells for Immunotherapy of Relapsed Refractory Neuroblastoma With Dinutuximab +/- Lenalidomide. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02573896 (2021).
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.
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.