Hello everyone! I’m Federica!

Hello everyone! I’m Federica, the new PhD student who joined the group 😃

I’m amazed that it’s been almost a month since it happened, and I couldn’t be happier!

I was born and raised in Palermo, a beautiful city in Sicily (Italy), but I always felt that it was not my place. So, I tried to combine my passion for cancer biology and my desire to live abroad by exploring the Erasmus Mobility Programme. I was awarded this scholarship twice, but both times I couldn’t avail of this opportunity. In March 2022, I got my Master’s degree and said to myself, “It’s time; this is my chance to go and build the future that I want”. And here I am. 😄

New adventures

I moved to Dublin in June 2022 and loved this city’s vibes! I met wonderful people from all over the world with which I spent really fun and carefree moments. 

These are only a few of that magic moments:

– I saw a deer for the first time in my life – I was soooo happy!

Deers in the Phoenex park
New drink experience

– I tried the “mate”, a traditional South American caffeine-rich infused herbal drink. As you can guess, I didn’t like it 😂 (sorry, my Argentinian friends).

– I got used to the outstanding colours of Ireland.

Obviously, I also had hard days. My English is still not perfect, but it’s getting better every day!  I remember the first day I arrived in Dublin when I was looking for a cup, but I asked for a cupboard in three different supermarkets 😂. People looked at me, probably thinking: “Why is she looking for furniture in a grocery store? Should I say something to her?” I realized that I had asked for the wrong thing only during the night, when I was in bed, thinking about that first crazy day. 

New colours

To be honest, I had a lot of really hard days, days when I felt that I wouldn’t be able to deal with other problems. But I never thought of giving up and returning to Italy. Every difficulty, every good or bad thing, is part of this wonderful experience, and I’m so excited and proud of myself for all the improvement I’ve been making, step by step.

I couldn’t make a better choice because I found my place in this super nice and great team in the Bioengineering Group 🙃

 I look forward to better knowing all my new teammates and sharing with them my journey as PhD student!

Written by Federica Cottone

So this is science..?

Had you told me before I started my PhD that I’d rushedly be writing a blog post on a bus in Bergamo, and it’s all part of my project, I certainly would have laughed and figured sure, maybe as a one-time exception if I find out something fascinating. But no, this is my second conference abroad this year, out of five in the past 4 months. My view on science and what is important to conduct good science has significantly changed since then, though. I have a ton of data from my secondment to Vilnius, but it is not all analysed yet. There are a number of decisions left to be made before my project becomes fully rounded and provides useful conclusions that I could share with people. But conferences serve another purpose. If everyone was only there to present their finished project, who would they present them to? At the current stage of my research, exchanging ideas, receiving feedback and seeing what others do helps immensely to provide perspective and both motivate me to do more and do better, inspire me to find new angles and also to relax and understand the bigger picture your project is a part, rather than getting bogged down by the day-to-day issues that so easily cloud your mind in everyday routine (as far as a PhD allows for routine…). In this way, conferences can shape a project, inform analyses and provide far more than an excuse to be out of the office.

Even more enjoyable are, of course, conferences when they’re held in such beautiful places! I’d never been to Barcelona or Milan. While I have no intention of making the cultural metropolises of Athlone and Limerick pale in comparison, it does feel different when adding an afternoon of sightseeing, includes a couple of centuries-old towns that look like they fell out of a fairy tale and churches built in the 13 hundreds in 20 degrees in March rather than freezing your fingers off after just an hour outside or seeing some trees and an old pub. I never thought science would facilitate me seeing the world, but I am delighted that it does. And while I never would have expected it before, I can now appreciate the value of presenting your project halfway to ensure that it’s the best it could have been when it’s done.

Presented my project at the European Association of Cancer Research Conference on National Pathology because I was awarded the Organisation of European Cancer Institutes (OECI) travel grant. So, I could enjoy some of the stunning views in Bergamo and even visit Milan.

Written by Ronja Struck

Ronja’s Travel to Vilnius University and the National Pathology Centre

Ronja received a 3 months EACR Travel Fellowship to travel and learn new skills from RCSI Ireland to Vilnius University and the National Pathology Centre, Lithuania, between July and October 2022.

She reflected on her personal and professional experience in the EACR Cancer Researcher blog. Enjoy the reading!

Ronja PhD is supported by the Irish Research Council and the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation.

Ronja: My typical day

A typical day for me is difficult to describe because there are many facets to a PhD in the Cancer Bioengineering research group. Some days I spend in the lab sectioning, staining or looking at tumour samples under the microscope. Others I stay at home, read papers and try to figure out how they can help me to achieve my research goals. Some days I take part in the courses and workshops offered in the scope of a structural PhD. Then there are times when I sit here writing up for you guys what it is that I do those other days. The academic environment also provides lots of other opportunities to apply yourself and broaden your horizons or pursue what you enjoy. I, for example, have the chance to partake in weekly dissections for medical teaching which helps to keep my anatomical knowledge fresh and is an always welcome change of scenery (and smell) when I am stuck on other things. Furthermore, I get to see the other side of conferences and what is involved in their planning, because I am part of the local organising committee for the European Federation for Experimental Morphology Symposium 2022.

Figure 1 Working on neuroblastoma cancer the samples I am working with are quite unsurprisingly tumour cells. But these can be grown, for example, in mice (A) or on manmade scaffolds (D).  I am moving a staining rack that holds the microscopy slides through staining containers filled with different solutions (C) to stain the slides. After the slides are stained the excess stain is removed by washing in distilled water (B). The resulting images depend on the type of stain. Stains like Alcian Blue can only be viewed with brightfield microscopy (A). But Picrosirius red can also be viewed under polarised light or as seen here (D) with fluorescent microscopy.

Currently, not yet half a year into my PhD, a lot of my time is spent planning. That’s planning which methods to use, which products to order and which experiments, and analyses would result in the most coherent and rounded off story being told by the summation of my research. I also spend a lot of time optimising the methods I will use to assure reproducibility and avoid issues during the analysis later on. For example, the whole tumour sample stained with Alcian blue you can see in Figure 1A clearly shows discernible blue and red regions. However, I have spent about 2 months now trying to get to a point of producing this same outcome reliably rather than having samples show up entirely blue or very only faintly stained. Picrosirius red, the solution I used to stain the sample in Figure 1D stains collagen. But there are many different stains for collagen. After researching most if not all of them I chose this one because it can be viewed with different types of microscopies providing slightly different information. Another step of planning includes how many pictures of which magnification will be required, one image of a whole section for orientation such as in Figure 1A and then more zoomed-in images to investigate the structure of collagen such as in Figure 1D.

Between course work and planning and optimising different aspects of my project, my PhD provides me with plenty of opportunities to focus on something else whenever I get stuck to later return with a fresh set of eyes.

Written by Ronja Struck, a 1st Yr PhD student funded by the IRC-CFNCRF

Models to study neuroblastoma in the laboratory

Finding suitable research models to study disease is a big challenge for researchers around the world. In cancer research, it is essential to work with models that can recapitulate tumour characteristics as much as possible. This is important to test chemotherapeutic drugs, understand tumour behaviour and have higher chances of translating the finds from the laboratory to clinical practice.  

Multiple factors influence tumour behaviour and disease progression. The most important is the tumour microenvironment, which comprises different cells and molecules that surround the tumour and the extracellular matrix, a network of molecules that provides support to the cells in the body.  

Most cell studies in a laboratory are based on 2D cell culture models in which the cells grow in a monolayer. Although this approach has a low cost and it is easy to use, it lacks the complexity observed in the clinical scenario. It is true that no model can recapitulate all the complexity found in the body. However, scientists were able to develop interesting approaches to study different tumour characteristics with relatively good approximation1.  

Specifically for neuroblastoma, the most common solid tumour that affects children, scientists developed 3D models in which neuroblastoma cells grow interacting with the surrounding environment and with each other in a vial. Examples of 3D models include cells grown in hydrogels or scaffolds and multicellular tumour spheroids (see image below). Spheroids are formed through the self-adhesion of tumour cells growing in the form of very small balls. They can be maintained in the laboratory on their own or supported by scaffold-based platforms (jelly-like or porous materials). Scaffolds essentially support the cell resembling the extracellular matrix and surrounding tissue in the body. 

In the Cancer Bioengineering Research Group, we work with neuroblastoma models such as organoids, a more complex type of spheroid, to understand neuroblastoma migration and invasion2. Moreover, we recently shared with the research community a protocol at jove.com describing the development of a 3D neuroblastoma model using collagen-based scaffolds3.  

Time-lapse video of neuroblastoma organoids’ growth. Accompanying experimental data published in Gavin et al., Cancers 2021. Source: the Cancer Bioengineering Research Group 

These models have the potential to advance drug tests performed in the laboratory providing better clinical translation, ultimately contributing to improving the quality of life and survival of children diagnosed with neuroblastoma.  

The work with 3D models at the Cancer Bioengineering Research Group is supported by the Irish Research Council, the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation, Neuroblastoma UK and National Children’s Research Centre. 

Written by Luiza Erthal

References 

1. Nolan, J. C. et al. Preclinical models for neuroblastoma: Advances and challenges. Cancer Lett. 474, 53–62 (2020). 

2. Gavin, C. et al. Neuroblastoma Invasion Strategies Are Regulated by the Extracellular Matrix. Cancers 13, 736 (2021). 

3. Gallagher, C., Murphy, C., O’Brien, F. J. & Piskareva, O. Three-dimensional In Vitro Biomimetic Model of Neuroblastoma using Collagen-based Scaffolds. J. Vis. Exp. 62627 (2021) doi:10.3791/62627. 

A 30km Dublin Mountain Way in A Day

And the story began with a meeting of fantastic 7 at the very beginning of Dublin Mountains Way in Tallaght at 6.30 am on September 25th. The spirit, cheer, backpacks with essentials and branded tops were on, Strava was launched and we swiftly headed off.

It was quiet, dark and cheering. No one was on the streets, a few cars passed by. We took towards Bohernabreena reservoir through the sleepy estates of Tallaght, sensing the sunset. Clouds were low and the highest peaks in the Dublin Mountains including Seefingan, Corrig and the highest, Kippure were in the mist. Nevertheless, we were full of energy and hopes to see it later.

Cheat chats and jokes were here and there, we walked in small dynamic groups recalling our pre-covid life and stories that happened during the lockdown. A mix of newbies and maturating research students. We met some in person for the first time since the COVID restrictions admitting that our visual senses are extremely important to memorise a person and recognise him/her on the next occasion. We were enjoying this face-to-face communication and our team re-connection.

The first 8 km flew in a flash. We stopped for our breakfast in Dublin Mountains. The grass was wet, the sky was blue. Mountains started to draw their shape through the clouds. Yoghurts, fruits, bars immediately disappeared in our stomachs. Everyone was happy to lighten their backpack. Every little helps!

A few plasters were glued, and we continued on at a very good pace. The sky was changing with sunny spells. We travelled around Spinkeen and Killakee at their base doing up and downhills and verifying our route with the hiking app. At the 20 km mark, we stopped for lunch. Sandwiches, grapes, mandarines and sweets were shared and eaten and then polished with chocolates from the recent Nadiya’s home trip. Jellies left untouched.

At 25 km, our blisters reminded us of being humans. Our pace slowed down and we started a very mild ascent to Tibradden Mountain leaving the Pine Forest or Tibradden Wood behind. We climbed further to Fairy Castle, the highest point on the Dublin Mountains Way (537m). Throughout the entire way, Dublin showed its best views of the Phoenix Park and the Pope Cross, house roofs, Aviva Stadium, two Chimneys, Dublin Port… The scenery was fascinating and breathtaking. We saw Howth and Dun Laoghaire, Sugar Loaf… We met groups of Germans, French, Irish and many others.

At Three Rocks Mountain/Fairy Castle, we started our descent and entered Tiknock forest. This part was steep. We crossed the Gap Mountain Bike Adventure Park to reach Glencullen. Got lost at the end but just for a sec and reached the Glencullen junction at 2.30pm. It took us 8 hours with walks and stops from start to finish to complete the 30 km challenge in a day. We got tired but felt happy and satisfied.

We aimed to raise awareness of childhood cancer in general and neuroblastoma in particular as well as honour children with cancer, their parents, siblings, friends and careers, doctors and nurses, volunteers in the hospitals and researchers working to find cancer weaknesses and develop new treatments that are friendly to patients and target cancer aggressiveness.

We will count our tally in the coming days and transfer it to three wonderful charities that support childhood cancer research.

We thank everyone who supported this challenge!

Go raibh maith agat!

Dublin Mountain Way in A Day, September 25th 2021

Here are our plans. This year we have upped the challenge, taking on the Dublin Mountain’s Way in a Day ⛰ We will hike through the Dublin Mountains from Tallaght to Glencullen, and maybe even all the way to Shankill on September 25th! Our challenge is not only to do #DMW in a Day & support three wonderful charities CMRF Crumlin/National Children’s Research Centre, Neuroblastoma UK and the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation but also beat our past fundraising records! If we raise 2K+, we’ll do 30km in a day. If 3K+ then 42km! Can u challenge us?  All funds raised will go to the 3 selected charities. Every donation big or small is hugely appreciated!

Please support us by donating to our Gofundme

https://gofund.me/ec59f131

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month 2021

Every 100th cancer patient is a child. Cancer is the 2nd most common cause of death among children after accidents. 

Childhood cancer is an umbrella term for many other types of this disease. Every September, many charities, researchers and parents of children with cancer work hard to raise awareness of this cancer. You may learn more about kids with cancer, their loving families, the doctors and caregivers who looking after them and treating them, the young survivors of cancer and those kids and teens who lost their battle, and the scientists who working hard to find a way to stop childhood cancer.

This year our research team will hike Dublin Mountain Way in One Day on the 25th of September 2021 whatever the weather in honour of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. For every one euro donated to research only 1 cent of this goes to ALL childhood health conditions including cancer. Therefore, the donations we receive will be split equally among some wonderful children’s charities. These charities include the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF), Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK), Children’s Research & Medical Foundation (CRMF) Crumlin.

If you would like to get involved in this amazing challenge and help us raise vital funds for childhood cancers, you can contribute to our fundraising page:

A warm welcome to our new PhD students!

A warm welcome to our new PhD students Ronja and Erin! Both received the prestigious Irish Research Council – Enterprise Partnership Scheme Award. Indeed, I am a proud PI. This competitive scheme brings the most promising researchers to advance our knowledge across many disciplines, e.g. Law, Astronomy, Sociology, Biomedical Sciences and many more. A key element of this scheme is to work together with an Enterprise Partner.

We will work closely with the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation – a research charity led by the family who lost their child to neuroblastoma. An inspirational example of never giving up.

We will continue to dissect neuroblastoma biology using innovative platforms such as tumour-on-chip and 3D scaffold-based models in collaboration with our colleagues in the Tissue Engineering Research Group at RCSI and the Fraunhofer Project Centre at DCU.

This announcement is timely to celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.

Two talented and dedicated young scientists are joining our team. In 4 years time, we will have another pic of their graduation on the same stairs.

Upwards and onwards!!

New Chapter – Cancer BioEngineering Group

I have started a new chapter in my research career by joining the Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine as a StAR Research Lecturer. By a coincidence, it has happened on the first day of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It might be symbolic.

The new start requires fresh ideas. Now, the new chapter is called Cancer Bioengineering Group. Exciting times ahead!

This Friday the 13th of September the Cancer-Bioengineering research group will be hosting a ‘Waffle Morning’ in honour of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. 

Pop into the ground floor staff common room from 8.30am to enjoy some delicious freshly made waffles and support the wonderful charities; CMRF Crumlin, NCRC, CFNCRF and NBUK.

We promise to bake 3D waffle engineered scaffolds and populate them with marshmallows, berries, cream and Nutella!