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:
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.
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.
It is always a pleasure to host undergraduate students during summer months. Two students joined the RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) Programme. Both are working on the NCRC funded project to understand mechanisms that drive neuroblastoma pathogenesis. None of them had a prior lab experience, but nothing is impossible under John’s supervision.
A full concentration on every single step of the research.
If you asked me after completion of my PhD, would I have ever thought of further education? I would have said – unlikely. Maybe short-term courses to advance my skills, but definitely no to a different field and a 2 years commitment.
Never say never. About four years ago, I started to feel uncomfortable with where I was – a piece of my life jigsaw was missing… I looked up different courses for further education in my field and for anything just relevant to my day job, like project management or teaching. I was even looking around for another job. But nothing…Nothing could be compared with my long life affair – science. This is the only thing that fuels me regardless the career or grant success trajectory.
Ten years after PhD I decided to do Masters in Science Communication, but part-time. The full-time job, family and research challenges did not leave me a choice. This was the same missing piece of the jigsaw. There were a lot to learn exploring another dimension – social sciences. All concepts and ideas of social sciences were studied through lenses of my current interests: cancer research, gender issues, science for public to name the least.
The experience was priceless. It is also inspired me to look outside the ‘box’, see research everywhere and communicate it, and last but not least to start my own blog.
The ultimate aim is to identify biomarkers of tumour response to drugs in the blood of children with high-risk neuroblastoma.
Challenge: Treatment regimens for patients with high-risk neuroblastoma involve intensive, multi-modal chemotherapy. Many patients response to initial therapy very well, but has only short-term effects, with most becoming resistant to treatment and developing progressive disease.
The project has two parts which complement each other.
We will study cell-to-cell communication using cell-based models. We will collect exosomes, small envelopes containing bioactive molecules, produced by drug-resistant cell lines to treat non-cancerous cells. We will measure the effect of exosomes on non-cancerous cells by counting cell growth, examining their shape and metabolism. We will also examine whether non-cancerous cells treated with exosomes become less responsive to chemo drugs.
We will treat neuroblastoma cells with a drug and collect exosomes before and after treatment. We will profile exosomes to identify any changes in their miRNA content. MiRNA are very small pieces of genetic material that can change the way cell feels and works. This step will help to find biologically active miRNA that can trigger cell resistance to drugs. These biologically active miRNA can represent biomarkers of tumour response to chemotherapy.
We will screen clinical samples for exosomal miRNA in response to drug treatment. We are planning to use a small sample of blood taken from neuroblastoma patients during routine examinations before, during and after chemotherapy.This step will help to find clinically relevant miRNA of tumour responsiveness to chemo drugs.
How does this project contribute to the biomedical community?
This study aims to contribute to the better understanding of the disease mechanisms and scientific knowledge in the area, and in particular how neuroblastoma cells communicate with other cells helping tumour to create a unique microenvironment and protect themselves from chemotherapy pressure. The new data will give insights in biologically active proteins and miRNAs involved in cell-to-cell communication and drug responsiveness.
What are potential benefits of the proposed research to neuroblastoma patients?
This project aims to develop exosomal biomarkers of tumour response to drugs that might be used to help select patients for treatment and identify novel targets for the development of more effective personalised therapy with the anticipated improvement in outcomes. This work will contribute to the more efficient design of re-initiation treatment, sparing patients unnecessary rounds of chemotherapy and ultimately increasing survival. These new circulating markers will benefit children with high-risk neuroblastoma whose tumours are relapsed leading to less harmful and more tailored treatment options and improving their quality of life.
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!
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).