As the year comes to an end, you are looking back and seeing all achievements in a different light, a light of the COVID glaze. Lab research was at bay for a while, challenges to return and re-start experiments, no scientific meetings in the traditional format where you build your new collaborative net at coffee breaks. Despite all, the team has expanded and we welcomed Ellen and Erin in October.
The NCRC Winter Symposia is a lovely way to wrap the year putting together all hard work and look at the progress done so far. We have an exciting project that has two arms: a blue-sky science and a translational. Working together John and Tom were able to generate promising results on understanding how small membrane-bound vesicles or exosomes can send signals from neuroblastoma cells to cells responsible for new blood vessels formation. They developed a protocol to scale up the production of exosomes, isolate them and characterise. We have a dataset on what these exosomes carry on and now can test how they promote new blood vessels formation. Indeed, more left to do but knowing the direction makes this journey meaningful.
Research is a fascinating journey no doubt. Inquisitive minds try to solve burning puzzles. It takes time. Some puzzles are more complected than the others. One of the hallmarks is the conversion of the resolved puzzle into a scientific story to tell to your peers.
We write and publish these stories. The publishing is another caveat that often makes your story sharper and neater. However, while you are in the process you feel that the mission is impossible.
Delighted to see that one of the missions is completed – a great hallmark for John which coincided with his new research adventure starting in a few days. This is his first first author paper! It is not tautology! It is his first original research paper where he is the first author. This position is a success measure in a research career. His teamwork skills secured him another few original papers. Well done John! Well deserved!
Last month we set ourselves the “10 Laps 10km” challenge for Childhood Cancer Awareness.
Now we have closed the GoFundMe and counted the charity buckets. We are delighted to announce we raised a grand total of €1419! We are over the moon with this sum, as 2020 required a very different kind of fundraiser than previous years.
Our three chosen charities: Children’s Health Foundation Crumlin (formerly CMRF), the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation, and Neuroblastoma UK, will each receive just over €470.
We’d like to say big thank you to everyone who donated. It will make a huge difference for these charities, this year especially, paving the way to better treatment options for children with cancer in the future.
The new norm, new challenges, new excitement and new achievements! We all proud to say that we completed 10K Vhi Womens Mini marathon socially distanced. Our paces were so different that distancing came absolutely natural. We ran it individually but were a team mentally. Even the capricious Irish weather was our ally. The Sun was bright. The air was fresh and crispy.
This was an individual challenge #POWEROF10: just you and the trail. 10 laps around St Stephen’s Green park were to make the target 10K in aid of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The celebration of life, therapeutical advancements, the strength of little patients battling their cancer and their families, doctors and carers who are supporting them in their journey. The emphasis on the gaps in available treatments and diagnosis and the importance of research that needs funding.
Personally, my 10K were split into two parts. The first 4K were full of arguments with my body. Why didn’t I like to do laps? Could I complete 10K? Was I fit to do it? Keep going! No walking – better slow jogging. Did one lap make 1K? Should I do a longer lap instead? And so on and so forth. Then, the second part kicked in. My body stopped arguing and began to enjoy it. I noticed beautiful Autumn colours on the trees, people walking around with a cup of coffee or chatting away, saw my team members overtaking me, and our volunteers counting our laps. People on the street and in the park were cheering us up. What a wonderful and fulfilling day!
As Catherine says: “The 10 Laps 10km challenge was tough! Like many people, I took up running casually during the lockdown, however, I never did more than a couple of kilometres at once, so I was absolutely not prepared for running 10. But the cheers from our socially distanced spectators and all the online support we received meant I got through it. Also knowing what a positive impact this challenge could have for the future of childhood cancer treatment provided plenty of motivation to finish the race 💛🎗”
Our Go Fund Me page is still open until this Sunday (October 11th midnight) if you wish to support us.
Our team is expanding – we are welcome our new PhD student Ellen King!Her project will add another dimension to neuroblastoma research. She will look into potential targets on the surface of neuroblastoma cells resistant to therapy and investigate how we can strengthen the patient immune systemresponse.
Like everyone, my current workspace looks very different from what it normally looks like. I have just joined the Cancer Bioengineering Group as a PhD student in the midst of the pandemic. Certain moments like induction day or meeting my new lab mates, will all be done virtually due to the pandemic. Luckily, I have spent the last year working as a research assistant at RCSI and this has taken away all the stresses of finding my way around a new campus and indeed making friends. Without a doubt, the transition is and will be a strange one but the excitement and enthusiasm haven’t gone anywhere!
Recently, my days as a researcher have been spent at my lovely, newly-built (with the help of IKEA instructions) home desk. And as the picture I have standing proudly beside my laptop says, there really is no place like home. I feel very lucky to be able to safely work from home and continue my research while so many people are now without jobs or are risking their lives to keep people safe during the pandemic.
Most days I wake up early and go for a run along the lovely canal beside my house. This is a great way to wake up my brain and is also great preparation for our virtual VHI mini-marathon on the 7th of October 2020 in honour of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I start work at around 9am, which at the moment is mostly research, reading papers and writing a literature review in preparation for my return to the lab soon. I miss the experimental side of my research and am really excited to start this new exciting project.
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
You may wonder whether I re-submit the same. the third time? Actually, our team has 3 ongoing PhD students and one starting from October. So, here we are. Three identical titles so far but different journeys. Today, it is Tom’s turn to tell his story.
Three years I ago I decided to try my hand at some cancer research and quit my job as a medical scientist in a diagnostic lab. I am now in my third year of a PhD and I am certain I made the right choice. It was a challenging transition from working in an environment with a lot of automation and standard operating procedures to one where you have to figure out everything for yourself! However, I think that that learning experience has allowed me to adjust quite well to all of the COVID-19 related upheaval.
Pre-pandemic you could saunter between your office and the lab as often as you pleased, you had a choice of at least four different places to go for coffee on campus and you could squeeze into a packed lift to avoid the stairs to the lab. Now a day in the lab is quite different. We have to book lab space online, social distance from our colleagues, frequent hand washing and wear a mask at all times.
These days I plan all my lab work and book lab bench space the week before. On a typical day I split my time between the lab and working from home. I am quite fortunate that my commute is only a 6 minute walk through Stephens Green, which is only 5 minutes longer than the walk from the lab to my old office.
Working through a pandemic is certainly challenging however I do appreciate my time in the lab much more now and I feel like I am much more productive when access to the lab is limited.
A lot has changed for me since I began my research journey in RCSI, as I transitioned from being an undergraduate placement student to a PhD candidate, however the biggest change has been adjusting to doing a lab-based PhD during a pandemic!
These days my work hours are shared between the labs in RCSI and my family home. While my bench space and office space used to be separated by just a few steps, there is now a 30+ minute bus journey between them. It has certainly put my planning skills to the test as now when I walk into the lab I need to be sure of what I am planning to do, and that I can complete the task in my pre-booked lab time slot.
I appreciate my time in the labs much more now that I spend so much time at home. Whether I am culturing neuroblastoma cells, analyzing proteins or genes by Western blots or PCRs, I enjoy immersing myself in the work knowing that my time on the bench is limited.
The main perk is that now when I am doing computer work – analyzing results, writing reviews, preparing presentations, using online software – I can do it from the comfort of my box-room-office, often very cosy in a blanket as I do it. While my work-from-home desk space is slightly more spacious than my desk in the now-closed “Write-up Room 2”, I do miss the chats and laughs that come with working in a shared office.
One thing’s for sure though, my two dogs very much enjoy the days that I work from home!
Catherine Murphy, Neuroblastoma UK funded PhD student
This summer I worked under Dr Piskareva supervision in the remote research program. My original plans for a lab experience were put down by COVID. My ultimate goal was to write the review article on the potential uses of retinoic acid in neuroblastoma research.
Before starting the project, I didn’t have any specific expectations. While I always had fun picking the primary articles apart and summarising the gathered data during my undergrad and med school, I didn’t believe that this experience would be the special one. And I kept thinking so as I was collecting the information from the numerous data on cell cultures. And as I was looking at the mice models studies. And clinical trials.
Then I started to write my introduction, and so researched the information on the neuroblastoma prognosis, contemporary treatment protocol and outcomes. And suddenly I saw my project in the new light. I was used to regarding the clinical trials outcomes as simple statistics, but this time no desensitization could shield me. Yes, 60% of the patients in the high-risk group die in 5 years after diagnosis, and yes, 90% of those patients are children less than 5 years old. And there is nothing that we could currently do to save those children.
On the other hand, this realisation brought meaning to my work. This time, I was not doing a PubMed search to get a good mark or CV reference. Instead, I was looking for the possible treatment of the disease. My review on the current knowledge about retinoic acid will let the other primary researchers target the most promising drug for future experiments and, eventually, create a novel and effective therapy to help those children.
And isn’t it what we are all striving for in medical research?
In the time of tough restrictions when you and your team are cocooning and working remotely, we can stay together thanks to many PC and mobile apps. We tried different platforms starting with Skype and WhatsUp and advancing to MS Teams and Zoom. The bottom line: we want to see everyone simultaneously! It is essential. As expected not every app gives you that option in a standard free package.
After 4 weeks, everyone in a spiritual writing mode. I would not be surprised to see the exponential growth of literature review articles in the coming months. I hope to get one from each team member. Sure that the quality of introduction/background sections in PhD Theses will also happen!
Actually, it is possible to play games remotely, too. What great fun!