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.
Regardless COVID19 pandemic, we continue to host undergraduate students from various Universities for their research projects. Two students, Carla and Chris, from the Technical University of Dublin, carried out BSc projects remotely. Having in-house datasets and many more published in open access, their projects were focused on bioinformatics, re-analysing them and giving a second look. Both Carla’s and Chris’ research received the highest score in their classes. Many congratulations – well deserved!! We wish to thank both for their kind words and willingness to share their story.
“My project concerned analysing the exosomal miRNA expression of neuroblastoma cells in response to chemotherapy. Though the project was not too large, it certainly was the largest project I have ever taken part in. The work Dr. Piskareva and her team are conducting is so interesting and novel that I felt very fortunate to be participating in such an exciting field. Despite the novel and complex nature of the topic, the project was extremely engaging, allowing for an opportunity to learn new valuable research and data analysis skills. I was able to get very useful and helpful feedback regularly from everyone on the research team, where there was a very welcoming and positive attitude. This made the topic seem less daunting and my goals more achievable. I was really happy with my results, and I am excited to see where they may lead in the future. Some of the miRNAs identified in the analysis may represent potential biomarkers or therapeutic targets for high-risk neuroblastoma patients. As I have yet to experience any lab-based research, it was cool to see the team’s approaches and applications of lab techniques and analysis strategies to see how research is conducted in the “Real World” after seeing these topics before only in lecture notes. Overall, the project was challenging but very rewarding and enjoyable. Throughout the project, the overall experience, the excitement of the results coming together, and the realisation that I may have something to contribute to this field of research cemented the idea in me that this is certainly the path I wish to pursue in science and for that, I would like to thank Dr. Piskareva and her team for such a positive and educational experience during my time with them.“
“During my final year project, I had the unique and amazing opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Olga Piskareva. The purpose of my thesis was to assess the clinical significance of Tumour Necrosis Factor Receptor Superfamily Member 1B and Member 4 (TNFRSF1B and TNFRSF4) in neuroblastoma patients. I accomplished this by analysing the gene profiles of several tumours using bioinformatic tools. In addition, I investigated the potential of microRNAs as therapeutic agents for neuroblastoma treatment. I thoroughly enjoyed carrying out this research project, and I hope the findings from my thesis can aid future research into the pathogenesis of neuroblastoma and the development of effective treatments for these children.“
Best of luck to Chris and Carla in their next endeavour!
Yep, we are living in challenging and extraordinary times. The COVID19 changes and dictates rules, but training of future health professionals is going on.
Within a fantastic RCSI summer training programme for medical students, our team ran essential practicals on the isolation of genetic material and the use of polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR, to detect differences in normal and modified genomic DNA.
Polymerase Chain Reaction, or simply PCR, was conceived and validated by biochemist Kary Mullis in 1983. This discovery revolutionised many scientific fields that dealt with genetic material and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. PCR allows rapid generation of small identical fragments of DNA. The fragments can be visualised, their size and number can be calculated. It has become a standard procedure in molecular biology and pathobiology screening. The COVID19 PCR test is actually an advanced modification of Mullis’ invention.
All students successfully set up individual PCRs to our great satisfaction, and the results are presented at the right bottom corner.
In early April, shortly after attending the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) virtual conference, I was delighted to find out I had been selected for a “Poster in the Spotlight” presentation at the European congress in June. I was invited to give a 10-minute presentation about my research on finding new immuno markers for drug-resistant neuroblastoma. This would be my first time presenting at a conference outside of Ireland (though I remained in my home in Dublin and not in the hoped destination of Turino) and so it was a very exciting experience!
On the morning of my talk, I logged onto zoom to meet the EACR session organisers and the other speakers in my session – a mixture of PhD students and Post-doc researchers from Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK. Each of our talks was then broadcasted to the virtual congress platform where cancer researchers around Europe could tune in.
After the presentations, we joined a “Meet the Speakers” session where we could chat with those who had tuned in, answer questions and open up some research discussions. I was asked one question from a researcher doing similar work to me on how I investigate the relationships between certain genes in cancer, and I was able to refer her onto the software I use – I hope this aids her research, as that’s the real aim of attending these conferences!
Following this, it was time to relax and watch some of the other interesting talks taking place in the congress. The EACR were running a photo competition to show where you were watching from in order to win a place at the 2022 congress in Seville. So, I took this opportunity to take my laptop out to the back garden and watch the congress in the sun, getting a selfie for twitter with #NotQuiteTorinoEACR2021. Fingers crossed by this time next year travelling for international conferences will be a reality for researchers once again!
Catherine Murphy, Neuroblastoma UK funded PhD student
Sunny and chill outside. But PhD students are very busy in the lab with lots to do, record and analyse. Happy with small steps forward. The right size of a PCR band (bottom right), nice looking recombinant bacteria colonies (top right), neuroblastoma cells formed perfect spheroids (multicolour image).
Since I joined neuroblastoma research, I have been puzzled by the fact that half of the children with neuroblastoma have the disease spread at the time of diagnosis. It is still a puzzle whether cells spread and primary tumour growth happen simultaneously or more adventurous cancer cells escape the primary tumour location later.
At a cancer conference, I met Prof Ewald who studies this process in breast cancer. I was fascinated by the approach and started to look for opportunities to join his lab. To tell the truth, very few exist for mid-stage career scientists! One of them is the Fulbright program.
One day, I opened my email saying that I received a Fulbright-HRB Health Impact Scholar Award to travel to Johns Hopkins University and adapt their 3D models to learn how neuroblastoma spreads. It was a life-changing experience both personally and professionally. The amount of experimental data collected over 4 months of work did not fit a 1TB memory stick! Indeed, this short journey was just a start of a new research inquiry.
On my return home, the greatest task that remained was to make sense of every single experiment. Cian Gavin took over and spent almost a year systematising, characterising it, and placing it into a context. It was meticulous work with very little known about invasion strategies in neuroblastoma. Now, we are happy to share our findings published on Cancers.
Where do we go now? Well, our next step is to understand the cellular players behind neuroblastoma invasion and how we can target them to stop neuroblastoma spread. It won’t be a short and sweet journey, but we are ready for it!
This fantastic and rewarding work was supported by Fulbright Commission Ireland, National Children’s Research Centre, Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland, the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute (Prof Ewald), Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for the COG Childhood Cancer Repository (Prof Reynolds) and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute (Prof Reynolds).
This summer, I had an amazing opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Olga Piskareva. I scheduled to join the lab for the second time, however, this plan was unfortunately cancelled to the COVID19. I was still hopeful and later I got the opportunity to work on a remote research project. My goal was to write a comprehensive review of existing and prospective antigens for antibody specific immunotherapy for neuroblastoma.
This was my first literature review and I was excited about it. I had previously worked on a lab neuroblastoma project that’s why I was familiar with the topic. However, this was a completely new and different undertaking for me. Before starting the project I had to understand about literature reviews are and how are they written. My project involved looking at a lots of clinical trials and PubMed articles. I had to learn about how clinical trials work and had to develop a search strategy for the project. I understood that literature reviews are a very important part of lab research and forms its backbone.
I started writing the project and ended up writing 40 pages! I developed awesome illustrations to support my review using the software. This was one of the most enjoyable parts of the remote research! As I was writing the project I understood that ‘Neuroblastoma is a devasting disease for children and the tremendous amount of effort and knowledge is being built upon to find a better and enhanced treatment to reduce the disease burden.’
I learnt and gained many critical skills during this review. My review on the existing and prospective knowledge about immunotherapies will enable researchers to get a summary of knowledge that will aid in giving them direction to eventually, create effective immunotherapy to defeat neuroblastoma.
Sanat Rashinkar, 3rd Year RCSI Undergraduate Medicine Student