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).
Childhood cancer is an umbrella term for a great variety of malignancies which vary by site of disease origin, tissue type, race, sex, and age.
The cause of childhood cancers is believed to be due to faulty genes in embryonic cells that happen before birth and develop later. In contrast to many adult’s cancers, there is no evidence that links lifestyle or environmental risk factors to the development of childhood cancer.
Every 100th patient diagnosed with cancer is a child.
In the last 40 years the survival of children with most types of cancer has radically improved owing to the advances in diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care. Now, more than 80% of children with cancer in the same age gap survive at least 5 years when compared to 50% of children with cancer survived in 1970s-80s.
Childhood cancer is the second most common cause of death among children between the ages of 1 and 14 years after accidents.
Unfortunately, no progress has been made in survival of children with tumours that have the worst prognosis (brain tumours, neuroblastoma and sarcomas, cancers developing in certain age groups and/or located within certain sites in the body), along with acute myeloid leukaemia (blood cancer). Children with a rare brain cancer – diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma survive less than 1 year from diagnosis. Children with soft tissue tumours have 5-year survival rates ranging from 64% (rhabdomyosarcoma) to 72% (Ewing sarcoma).
For majority of children who do survive cancer, the battle is never over. Over 60% of long‐term childhood cancer survivors have a chronic illness as a consequence of the treatment; over 25% have a severe or life‐ threatening illness.
It is always interesting to see what kids think about science and scientists. How their vision is affected by environment. A 7 year old boy drew a scientist in a funny but positive way. The scientist’s heart has a form of chemical flask.
Three years later, the same boy participated in the RDS Primary Science Fair which runs side by side with the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. The idea of this exhibition is very simple. It is a non-competitive event, showcasing STEM research projects (science, technology, engineering and maths) carried out by primary school classes across Ireland. The research projects encourage children’s native curiosity to explore the science behind the everyday.
His class presented a research project ‘Are We Living in the Dark Ages?’ The bunch of 4th class students were exploring the importance of sun light and electricity in our every day life.A colleague of mine was ‘Head Judge’ at this Fair and pointed out the overall enthusiasm and positivity coming from these young children about the research undertaken. I personally was stopped by every school team. Children wanted to share their findings. The project and its presentation were very important for them.
Children are natural explorers and when their ability can be encouraged by the events like the RDS Primary Science Fair, then we, adults, can feel reassured that research can make dreams come true. Dreams about new effective therapies, spaceflights to new stars and planets and many more.
This post is dedicated to parents of children with neuroblastoma. Some parents asked about DFMO – a re-purposing drug. In this post, I tried to collect and summarize information available from academic sources.
Q1: What is DFMO?
Difluoromethylornithine (DFMO, Eflornithine) is an anti-protozoan drug. It was originally developed and FDA approved for the treatment of Trypanosoma brucei gambiense encephalitis (“African sleeping sickness”). DFMO permanently binds to ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), an important enzyme in polyamine metabolism, and prevents the natural substrate ornithine from entering the active site.
By inhibiting ODC, DFMO reduces cellular polyamines and inhibits cell growth and proliferation of actively dividing cells, thus making DFMO an attractive candidate for cancer therapy. In neuroblastoma, a positive regulation of all aspects of polyamine metabolism by MYCN was reported (revived by Bassiri 2015, Gamble 2012). So, it is believed that MYCN amplified neuroblastomas would most benefit of the drug.
Q2: How intense is basic science behind DFMO in neuroblastoma?
To find out the intensity of basic science on DFMO in neuroblastoma search for ‘difluoromethylornithine/DFMO/Eflornithine’ and ‘neuroblastoma’ was run in PubMed, a web-based resource with 26 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. The search returned 23 papers including 3 reviews and 20 primary research reports published from 1980 to present.
In comparison, I did another search for a novel drug Unituxin (dinutuximab) approved by FDA in 2015. It is monoclonal antibody against the glycolipid disialoganglioside GD2, a biomarker specific for neuroblastoma. Search for ‘anti-GD2 antibody’ and ‘neuroblastoma’ returned 181 papers including 25 reviews and 156 primary articles for the same period.
Q3: Is DFMO in cancer clinical trials?
“ClinicalTrials.gov is a Web-based resource that provides patients, their family members, health care professionals, researchers, and the public with easy access to information on publicly and privately supported clinical studies on a wide range of diseases and conditions. The Web site is maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Search for ‘difluoromethylornithine/DFMO/Eflornithine’ in ClinicalTrials.gov returned 36 registered trials across different health conditions.Two of these were withdrawn, the breakdown for the rest 34 is as follows: Adenomatous Polyp (1), Anaplastic Astrocytoma/Recurrent Anaplastic Astrocytoma (1), Bladder Cancer (1), Cervical Cancer/Precancerous Condition (1), Colorectal Cancer (3), Esophageal Cancer (1), Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (1), Gastric Cancer/Gastric Intestinal Metaplasia (1), Hirsutism (2), Human African Trypanosomiasis (5), Neuroblastoma (7), Non-melanomatous Skin Cancer/Precancerous/Nonmalignant Condition (4), Post-solid Organ Transplant/Skin Neoplasms (1), Precancerous Condition (1), Prostate Cancer (2), Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (1), Type 1 Diabetes (1) (Fig. 2). To see full details of 34 trials please click at this Table.
All of them have various statuses (Fig. 3) as well as study design. Importantly, 30 out of 34 studies are focused on safety and efficacy of this drug. Vast majority of studies of DFMO in adult cancers/benign conditions are randomized (16/18 or 89%). Randomization in assignment of patients in studied groups (control and new drug/combination) helps minimize researcher’s bias when comparing effect of the new treatment vs current/no treatment. All trials of DFMO in neuroblastoma are not randomized. Instead, studies use a single group assignment.
Three trails have been either completed/terminated and published results are available at ClinicalTrials.gov (NCT01059071, NCT00033371. NCT00118365).
Q4: What about clinical trials of DFMO in neuroblastoma?
The trial NCT01059071 was a Phase 1 clinical trial. A phase I clinical trial tries to find out whether a new treatment/drug is safe, what its side effects are, the best dose of the new treatment, if the treatment shrinks the cancer.
Twenty one patients were enrolled and eligible for treatment with DFMO and DFMO + etoposide. These patients were assigned into 4 groups of different DFMO doses (Fig. 4). The treatment was in cycles of 21 days. Cycle 1 – DFMO only followed by cycle 2 – combined treatment of DFMO+etoposide (14 days) and DFMO only (the last 7 days).
According to results of the trial: 14 patients did not complete the treatment due to different reasons. It was not clear what stage/cycle they left the trial.
As mentioned earlier this study used a single group assignment and a design called ‘3+3’. This design is straightforward and safe. Briefly, it means that for a dose (X) of the drug, 6 patients are selected. Of these, 3 receive the dose X and are monitored for a period of time. If no adverse effects are registered in these 3, then another new 3 patients start the same treatment. The effect of the drug is evaluated on the patent’s health condition before-, during – the treatment and after its completion. This approach is often used in vaccine tests and dose escalation methods in Phase I cancer clinical trials. This type of study can answer mainly two questions: 1) whether the tested drug is safe to use and 2) what doses are safe? The main drawbacks of this design are
Many patients treated at doses below therapeutic effect
Slow dose increase
Uncertainty about the recommended phase II dose (RP2D)
Only the result from the current dose is used for determining the dose of next cohort of patients. Information on other doses is ignored
Q6: What are main findings of the clinical trial NCT01059071?
The overflow of the study is presented in Fig 5 providing additional information on those who did not complete the trial. Out of 14 participants, disease has progressed in 11 patients – it is 52% of the enrolled participants. Authors highlighted that this phase I study was not designed to evaluateanti-tumour efficacy of DFMO. But tumour response and clinical response were monitored during the study.
According to the paper, 21 patients received at least one dose of DFMO only (Cycle 1, 21 days). During this cycle, 3 patients were withdrawn. All of them were assessed for safety of DFMO.
Eighteen of them completed cycle 1 and continued treatment with DFMO+etoposide for another 4 cycles followed with DFMO only therapy for a number of cycles. Their clinical response data were examined for efficacy of DFMO alone.
Three out of 21 participating patients in this clinical trial remain alive and disease free between 2–4.5 years after starting DFMO.
Authors concluded that
DFMO doses of 500-1500mg/m2/day are safe and well tolerated in children with relapsed NB
Research and review papers covering DFMO in neuroblastoma:
Evageliou NF, Haber M, Vu A, Laetsch TW, Murray J, Gamble LD, Cheng NC, Liu K, Reese M, Corrigan KA, Ziegler DS, Webber H, Hayes CS, Pawel B, Marshall GM, Zhao H, Gilmour SK, Norris MD, Hogarty MD. Polyamine Antagonist Therapies Inhibit Neuroblastoma Initiation and Progression. Clin Cancer Res. 2016 Sep 1;22(17):4391-404. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-15-2539.
Bassiri H, Benavides A, Haber M, Gilmour SK, Norris MD, Hogarty MD. Translational development of difluoromethylornithine (DFMO) for the treatment of neuroblastoma. Transl Pediatr. 2015 Jul;4(3):226-38. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2224-4336.2015.04.06. Review.
Saulnier Sholler GL, Gerner EW, Bergendahl G, MacArthur RB, VanderWerff A, Ashikaga T, Bond JP, Ferguson W, Roberts W, Wada RK, Eslin D, Kraveka JM, Kaplan J, Mitchell D, Parikh NS, Neville K, Sender L, Higgins T, Kawakita M, Hiramatsu K, Moriya SS, Bachmann AS. A Phase I Trial of DFMO Targeting Polyamine Addiction in Patients with Relapsed/Refractory Neuroblastoma. PLoS One. 2015 May 27;10(5):e0127246. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127246.
Lozier AM, Rich ME, Grawe AP, Peck AS, Zhao P, Chang AT, Bond JP, Sholler GS Targeting ornithine decarboxylase reverses the LIN28/Let-7 axis and inhibits glycolytic metabolism in neuroblastoma. Oncotarget. 2015 Jan 1;6(1):196-206.
Samal K, Zhao P, Kendzicky A, Yco LP, McClung H, Gerner E, Burns M, Bachmann AS, Sholler G. AMXT-1501, a novel polyamine transport inhibitor, synergizes with DFMO in inhibiting neuroblastoma cell proliferation by targeting both ornithine decarboxylase and polyamine transport. Int J Cancer. 2013 Sep 15;133(6):1323-33. doi: 10.1002/ijc.28139.
Koomoa DL, Geerts D, Lange I, Koster J, Pegg AE, Feith DJ, Bachmann AS. DFMO/eflornithine inhibits migration and invasion downstream of MYCN and involves p27Kip1 activity in neuroblastoma. Int J Oncol. 2013 Apr;42(4):1219-28. doi: 10.3892/ijo.2013.1835.
Gamble LD, Hogarty MD, Liu X, Ziegler DS, Marshall G, Norris MD, Haber M. Polyamine pathway inhibition as a novel therapeutic approach to treating neuroblastoma. Front Oncol. 2012 Nov 16;2:162. doi: 10.3389/fonc.2012.00162. Review
Passariello CL, Gottardi D, Cetrullo S, Zini M, Campana G, Tantini B, Pignatti C, Flamigni F, Guarnieri C, Caldarera CM, Stefanelli C. Evidence that AMP-activated protein kinase can negatively modulate ornithine decarboxylase activity in cardiac myoblasts. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012 Apr;1823(4):800-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamcr.2011.12.013.
Rounbehler RJ, Li W, Hall MA, Yang C, Fallahi M, Cleveland JL. Targeting ornithine decarboxylase impairs development of MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma. Cancer Res. 2009 Jan 15;69(2):547-53. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-08-2968.
Koomoa DL, Yco LP, Borsics T, Wallick CJ, Bachmann AS. Ornithine decarboxylase inhibition by alpha-difluoromethylornithine activates opposing signaling pathways via phosphorylation of both Akt/protein kinase B and p27Kip1 in neuroblastoma. Cancer Res. 2008 Dec 1;68(23):9825-31. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-08-1865.
Hogarty MD, Norris MD, Davis K, Liu X, Evageliou NF, Hayes CS, Pawel B, Guo R, Zhao H, Sekyere E, Keating J, Thomas W, Cheng NC, Murray J, Smith J, Sutton R, Venn N, London WB, Buxton A, Gilmour SK, Marshall GM, Haber M. ODC1 is a critical determinant of MYCN oncogenesis and a therapeutic target in neuroblastoma. Cancer Res. 2008 Dec 1;68(23):9735-45. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-07-6866.
Wallick CJ, Gamper I, Thorne M, Feith DJ, Takasaki KY, Wilson SM, Seki JA, Pegg AE, Byus CV, Bachmann AS. Key role for p27Kip1, retinoblastoma protein Rb, and MYCN in polyamine inhibitor-induced G1 cell cycle arrest in MYCN-amplified human neuroblastoma cells. Oncogene. 2005 Aug 25;24(36):5606-18.
Bachmann AS. The role of polyamines in human cancer: prospects for drug combination therapies. Hawaii Med J. 2004 Dec;63(12):371-4. Review
Chen ZP, Chen KY. Differentiation of a mouse neuroblastoma variant cell line whose ornithine decarboxylase gene has been amplified. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1991 Dec 3;1133(1):1-8.
Piacentini M, Fesus L, Farrace MG, Ghibelli L, Piredda L, Melino G. The expression of “tissue” transglutaminase in two human cancer cell lines is related with the programmed cell death (apoptosis). Eur J Cell Biol. 1991 Apr;54(2):246-54.
Melino G, Piacentini M, Patel K, Annicchiarico-Petruzzelli M, Piredda L, Kemshead JT. Retinoic acid and alpha-difluoromethylornithine induce different expression of neural-specific cell adhesion molecules in differentiating neuroblastoma cells. Prog Clin Biol Res. 1991;366:283-91.
Stephanou A, Knight RA, De Laurenzi V, Melino G, Lightman SL.Expression of pre-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA in undifferentiated and in vitro differentiated human neuroblastoma cell lines. Prog Clin Biol Res. 1991;366:173-80.
Melino G, Farrace MG, Ceru’ MP, Piacentini M. Correlation between transglutaminase activity and polyamine levels in human neuroblastoma cells. Effect of retinoic acid and alpha-difluoromethylornithine. Exp Cell Res. 1988 Dec;179(2):429-45.
Chen KY, Dou QP. NAD+ stimulated the spermidine-dependent hypusine formation on the 18 kDa protein in cytosolic lysates derived from NB-15 mouse neuroblastoma cells. FEBS Lett. 1988 Mar 14;229(2):325-8.
Karvonen E, Andersson LC, Pösö H. A human neuroblastoma cell line with a stable ornithine decarboxylase in vivo and in vitro. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1985 Jan 16;126(1):96-102.
Pösö H, Karvonen E, Suomalainen H, Andersson LC. A human neuroblastoma cell line with an altered ornithine decarboxylase. J Biol Chem. 1984 Oct 25;259(20):12307-10.
Chen KY, Nau D, Liu AY. Effects of inhibitors of ornithine decarboxylase on the differentiation of mouse neuroblastoma cells. Cancer Res. 1983 Jun;43(6):2812-8.
Chapman SK. Antitumor effects of vitamin A and inhibitors of ornithine decarboxylase in cultured neuroblastoma and glioma cells. Life Sci. 1980 Apr 21;26(16):1359-66. No abstract available.
I continue to share the meaning of research for non-science students. Zaki was a summer medical student in 2015.
“I am a final year Malaysian medical student studying at RCSI. I had the opportunity to join RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) by assisting in research with Cancer Genetics, Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics Department of RCSI. My mentor was Dr Olga Piskareva. My research project investigated the role of chromogranin A as a biomarker in drug-resistant neuroblastoma by analysing its expression in different neuroblastoma samples of murine models.
Frankly speaking, I had zero experience in clinical research (apart from basic science project I did at high school) before the placement started. The reading materials that Dr Piskareva handed to me felt like an alien language that had to be deciphered, let alone doing experiment with western blotting and ELISA. I remembered my first day at the lab, staring enthusiastically at every apparatus and machines but not knowing how to run them.
Fortunately, Dr Piskareva and other lab buddies were very experienced and helpful enough with my insufficiency. Their perseverance and willingness to share knowledge and tip built my confidence and understanding to finish my research project. I never had any difficulty to discuss and ask for help any time I needed it from them in the lab. They were also very warm and friendly not just inside the lab but also outside of the lab.
I felt like we were one big multinational family in one small lab. Imagine researchers coming from Russia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands and myself from Malaysia working hand-in-hand, together. Over time, we bonded very close especially with our weekly breakfast getaway at Gerry’s and my friend Mei Rin and I even prepared our Malaysian cuisine for everyone in the lab in our last days. Even though most of my friends went home for the summer break, never did I felt lonely during my time in the lab. I am very grateful to have them in the lab and to call them my ‘keluarga’ (means family in Malay language).
After the research, I had the opportunity to do poster presentation at RCSI Research Day 2016 and International Conference for Healthcare and Medical Students (ICHAMS) 2016 at RCSI. These were great platforms for me to share my findings with other researchers. Above all, these were made possible with the help of Dr Piskareva and my lab buddies in preparing the poster and full report of the research. Additionally, the findings also provided me with extra information about neuroblastoma in line with my medicine study in paediatrics.
I would cherish every moment in the lab and indeed it was a very priceless experience. I would very much do it all over again in the lab if I had the chance because of the craving for knowledge and warmth of the lab buddies.
One of my classmates shared a funny image of the Upturned Microscope and I could not agree more… That week was exactly 12 months since I have started to apply for funding to carry out neuroblastoma research. Seven applications were submitted to various national and European funding bodies. Some were for a PhD student project, other were for PostDoc or both, Four came back with nothing. Two – decision pending and another one was shortlisted but not funded in the first round. A possibility existed that it could be funded at some day in 2017. So, this pic illustrated my feelings very well..
However, either my efforts were paid off or some Christmas miracle has happened, and I have received a note informing on the green light to funding my application. The funding comes from the National Children’s Research Centre and covers a PostDoc position and research consumables over 3 years. It was the very Christmasy news! I was over the moon.
The conditions of the award states:
Finally, the applicants must indicate how the investment in this research will be measured and communicated, not only to the academic community but also to the hospital, the fundraisers, to parents and patients and to the wider public.
This place will be my research diary to share ups and downs of the ongoing work. Please join me in this exciting journey!