A new, three-dimensional approach to cancer research

Appeared in today’s Irish Times. Lovely crafted by Dr. Vanesa Martinez

Although the discovery could be applicable in principle to any a solid tumour, Dr Piskareva’s target is neuroblastoma, a relatively common child cancer which affects a specific type of nerve cells in unborn children. “It’s quite aggressive and unfortunately there are many children who have metastasis when they are diagnosed, and this is the most challenging group to treat.”

Irish Times, 31 May 2018

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/a-new-three-dimensional-approach-to-cancer-research-1.3505347

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.

A new 3D strategy to study neuroblastoma

Our body has 3 dimensions: height, width and depth. Every single part of our body grows in the same 3 dimensions. This is true for cancer cells. Researchers use different ways to study cancer cells behaviour, how they grow and spread. We grow cells in the flasks, where they change their structure and shape and become flat losing one dimension. This is a very popular approach. We also grow cells in mice, where cells keep their 3D shape and mimic their behaviour to one observed in humans.

It is well known that we need to give a different amount of drug to kill cancer cells grown in flasks and in mice. This, in turn, delays the development of new drugs. Why does it happen this way? So, the drug works only on one side of the cell when they grow on the flat surface. In contrast, in mice, drug surrounds the cancer cell habitat and attacks cells at the edge first and then getting to those at the core. So we need more drug to kill cancer cells in mice.

We decided to design a new way to grow cancer cells that recreate their growth in 3 dimensions as in the human or mice body. We used special cotton wool like sponges as a new home for cancer cells and populated them with cancer cells. At the next step, we gave cells the drug at the different amount and checked what happened.

To understand cell fitness we stained them with red and blue dyes. On the left bottom side of the image, we see an equal amount of red and blue dyes telling us that cells were healthy and fit. Cells did not get any drug. When we gave a little amount of the drug but enough to kill cells in the flask, the balance of red and blue dyes was the same telling us that nothing really happened (the image in the middle). Cells were feeling well and healthy. The right bottom image has only blue dye. In this case, cells were given the amount of drug enough to destroy cancer cells in mice or humans. The lack of red dye tells us that this time the drug worked and killed the cancer cells.

We found that the drug killed cells on sponges only at doses enough to do the same in mice.

So, we concluded the new tactic to grow cancer cells in 3D on cotton-like sponges can bridge the gap between traditional way and animal models. This new strategy to grow cells on sponges should help to understand cancer cell behaviour better and accelerate the discovery and development of new effective drugs for neuroblastoma and other cancers. This, in turn, will make the outlook for little patients better and improve their quality of life.

This work has been published in Acta Biomaterialia and presented recently at the Oral Posters Session at the 54th Irish Association for Cancer Research Conference 2018.

This study was supported by Neuroblastoma UK and National Children’s Research Centre.

You can find more at

A physiologically relevant 3D collagen-based scaffold–neuroblastoma cell system exhibits chemosensitivity similar to orthotopic xenograft models.

IACR Meeting 2018 Programme

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!

Irish Neuroblastoma Research Collaboration

On November 20th, the Irish neuroblastoma researchers have met for the first time to set up a collaborative research hub.  The aim is to consolidate their expertise and skills in order to crack the neuroblastoma code together.

They all have different science background spanning from molecular and cellular biologists,  immunologists, tissue-engineering, bioinformatics, mathematical modelling and clinicians representing RCSI, UCD, TCD, OLCHC and NCRC. During this meeting, researchers talked about their challenges and progress finding out that we are complementing each other projects. Clinicians from different OLCHC departments exposed basic researchers to realities of the disease.  None would find this information in academic papers: it is what you see in the clinic and how it works in practice.

Big thank you to Dr Cormac Owens for the invitation and linking us together and Prof Jacinta Kelly for mapping the support available from the NCRC and CMRF.

Our next meeting will be held in RCSI in January 2018.

Happy Birthday the Irish Neuroblastoma Research Consortium!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Puzzle of Childhood Cancer Research

We hear great news from the US labs that a new treatment is on the way for children with cancer. Most of their research is funded by charities and success stories appear because of the people who want to make dreams come true for kids with cancer and their families. Dreams for longer and healthier life.

Interestingly, the study led by Professor Bernie Hannigan, the University of Ulster, which was published by Medical Research Charities Group, identified main gaps that keep Ireland at the bay:

Generosity of Pixabay
  • Childhood cancer research areas are not prioritised, including neuroblastoma.
  • No Government funding support for childhood cancer research. The research has to compete on general terms with well-funded research groups/centres/clusters focused on the adult cancers (breast, prostate, etc)
  • No systematic involvement in research of Patients or other lay people.
  • No medical research charities to fill the gap in childhood cancer research funding.

The good news: that things are changing thanks to The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation and Lightitupgold Childhood Cancer Foundation. Some childhood cancer research is funded by Children’s Medical and Research Foundation. But this research field needs more.
#ChildhoodCancerAwarenessMonth

MRCG_Research_Report

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.

 

Fundraising for Childhood Cancer Research

Dedicating posts to neuroblastoma and childhood cancer awareness month, it is impossible to stay distant about the need of fundraising to fund research. The #ChildhoodCancerAwareness Campaign aims not only attract our attention to the fact that kids get cancer too, but mostly to show how little is done to understand the causes of the disease and offer effective treatments.

  • To address the last problems more research is needed both curiosity-driven and translationally focused. To answer the question why research needs more funding, in general, you can find here.
  • Effective treatments cost money: only 4% of research funding goes to research in ALL childhood health conditions. In the other words, every 4 cents of each 1 euro are to be used in research.
  • The causes of childhood cancer including neuroblastoma are not known. It would be right to expect more blind alleys and failed ideas in the understanding these cancers.
  • The research can take decades, so it is a long-term investment. In contrary, people, who can give money (the politicians and governments), have 4-5 years of political power. 4-5 years vs decades = the discovery research becomes critically underfunded.
  • Who can change the situation? You, me and anyone. People who care. It happens through their active position and fundraising. Like the Foleys, Childhood Cancer Foundation and the Children’s Medical and Research Foundation.
  • Fundraising creates opportunities for blue sky research and developing cancer treatments.
If plants can grow through stones, so we can make a change.

 

 

Thank you all who support cancer research charities!

 

Why do we need fundraising for cancer research?

Childhood and Cancer

Walking in Mainz last week I saw a lovely fountain capturing 3 girls under umbrellas (Drei-Mädchen-Brunnen) at the ball square. This fountain was built between two Catholic girl’s schools symbolising the separate education and happy childhood. It has charmed me and reminded rainy days in Ireland and how this fountain may fit any park or square in Dublin.

My second look at the picture gave me another perspective. This sculpture could illustrate not only happy childhood but also the protection we can give to children with cancer being their umbrellas. As September is childhood cancer awareness month, I am picking this picture to support this call. Raising awareness about childhood cancer we help to make their dreams come true. Dreams for better treatment, better quality of life full of love ahead through better funding of childhood cancer research and access to innovative treatments.

Three girls fountain in Mainz Germany

What lessons have been learnt?

Today is the final day of the Third International Cancer lmmunotherapy Conference. The meeting was run at the Rheingoldhalle Congress Center in Mainz/Frankfurt, Germany from September 6-9, 2017. More than 500 people attended this meeting.

The focus of the scientific program was on “Translating Science into Survival”. Talks covered the challenging areas in cancer immunology and immunotherapy. The full list of topics can be found in the meeting program.

At the moment cancer immunology and immunotherapy is a hot topic in the next generation of anti-cancer therapies. Lots of attention is given to checkpoint immunodrugs as it was proven by the prevalence of talks on this subject in the program. Indeed, this drug has great potential, but at the same time, it is not universal. About 50% of patients do not benefit from it.

What lessons have been learned from the talks:

  • Checkpoint immunotherapies are the main stream
  • Not all cancer patients would respond to immunodrug
  • Genetic landscape of a tumour and/or the patient may contribute to this, thus making beneficial to check genetics for this type of treatment
  • Immunodrugs work better in combination with conventional therapies such as chemotherapy.
  • The immune system can be tuned by a drug, but it will switch on compensatory mechanisms to balance the intervention.
  • Lots have to be studied further