Knit-A-Thon 2023 Results

A wonderful day of knitting – Knit-A-Thon-2023 raised 913 euros. A massive thank you to everyone who stopped by and donated on the day and beyond. Every cent counts! The money was split evenly between our four chosen charities: The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF)Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK)Oscars Kids and Childhood Cancer Ireland (CCI). These charities were established and are run by parents, some of whom lost their children to cancer. They continue their children’s legacy, doing an amazing job of advocating for children with cancer and better funding for research and aftercare.

Knit-A-Thon 2023

And a special thank you to Ciara’s mam Aggie for the amazing handmade raffle prizes (chromosomes, antibodies, cup holders and many more) and a Master class on the day! We thank Jenny Duffy (RCSI Events and Communications Coordinator) for her time crocheting with us and for us!  Thanks to Anggie’s and Jenny’s skills, there were lots of mascots to win – and many of them collected already. We much appreciate the support from the RCSI Estates and Porters who looked after us on the day.

Go Raibh Maith Agat!!!

MANY THANKS FOR YOUR BIG HEARTS!!!

Knit-A-Thon 2023


We are the Cancer Bioengineering Group, and September is a very special month for us as it is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Childhood cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in children after accidents. Our group researches childhood cancer neuroblastoma, a cancer of immature nerve cells. Despite intensive multimodal treatment, as many as 1 in 5 children with aggressive neuroblastoma do not respond, and up to 50% of children that do respond experience disease recurrence with many metastatic tumours resistant to many drugs and more aggressive tumour behaviour that all too frequently results in death.

This is what we want to change! We believe that every child deserves a future, and our team of postgraduate researchers led by Dr Olga Piskareva is dedicated to strengthening our knowledge of this disease and identifying new potential ways to tackle it, as well as taking part in fundraising activities so our group and others can continue with this research.  

On Tuesday, the 19th of September, we are running a Knit-A-Thon using gold and purple yarn to mark childhood cancer and neuroblastoma, respectively. Our patterns are inspired by Neuroblastoma UK and Mr Google, indeed.

This year, we honour 4 charities that are doing an amazing job of advocating for children with cancer and better funding for research and aftercare. Therefore, the donations we receive will be split equally among The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF), Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK), Oscars Kids and Childhood Cancer Ireland (CCI). If you would like to get involved in the Knit-A-Thon and help us raise vital funds for childhood cancers, come along on the day and make a donation to these wonderful charities.

On the day, RCSI 123 SSG will #GoGold in support of this cause. Please come by to see the RCSI building lit up and share your pictures on social media with the hashtag #ChildhoodCancerAwarenessMonth to raise awareness.

Ready, Steady, Go!

Every year we manage to raise an amazing 1500-2000 euros by organising a new challenge. We are eager to surpass that target this year. All donations no matter how small are appreciated at GoFundMe.

Growing cancer cells in 3D

Hi there, Ciara here again, a final-year PhD student in our research group. I can’t believe September has rolled around again, meaning one thing: it’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM). In honour of this month, I would like to tell you a little bit about the childhood cancer we study in our lab and the research that I do to one day help save children from this disease. 

Neuroblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer, with sadly only 20% of late-stage patients surviving after 5 years. Progressive disease and cancer relapse are common in neuroblastoma. This is due to standard treatment regimens not being adequate for treating high-risk patients. Current treatment also may cause a series of adverse reactions in patients. Therefore, my research focuses on developing a 3D model of high-risk neuroblastoma that models the cancer more accurately in a laboratory setting. This will act as a beneficial platform to test whether new therapies effectively fight the patients’ cancer cells, leading to better treatment options for children with neuroblastoma.  

Below is a picture of how we grow these cancerous cells on our 3D model and visualise them with fluorescent stains. When we can see them like this under a microscope, we can study how they move and grow to help us understand how to treat them. 

Here, we can see the cells growing on our 3D cancer model. This image is magnified by 200 times to be able to see the individual cancer cells. The green stain is the outside of our cancer cells, or we use the term, the cell membrane. The blue is the inside, or as some of you may know the term, the nucleus of the cell.   (It is amazing what we can see with the power of microscopes, right?) 

As you may know, every year, we support amazing charities by raising vital funds to keep the fight against childhood cancer going. Keep your eyes peeled on our Twitter for updates on what crazy activity we have committed to this year!!  

Written by Ciara Gallagher

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month 2023

Every September, we celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Unfortunately, kids get cancer, too. While much research has been done to understand how cancer develops in adults, we still know very little about what exactly leads to cancer in children.

We are the Cancer BioEngineering Group led by Dr Olga Piskareva at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Our research focuses on neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer of immature nerves. The group has 7 PhD students developing research projects around neuroblastoma biology. One postgraduate student successfully defended her work and was awarded a PhD last month.

We are a dynamic group proud to be engaged in research, science communication and patient involvement. We do that through different initiatives. Throughout September, we will share many of them and invite you to keep following us on social media. 

Team 2023

Our projects address topics related to neuroblastoma microenvironment, cell interactions, tumour resistance and the development of new therapies. To do that, we use 3D in vitro models, identify immunotherapeutic targets and evaluate extracellular vesicles.  

We are always happy to answer questions and interact with the public. Follow us on our social media channels and read our blog to learn more about us and our research.  

We are running a fundraising event, “A knit-a-thon,” on the 19th of September. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading, and we go ahead with neuroblastoma research! 

Experiencing Elegance: A Graduation Ceremony at the University of Siena, Italy

This blog takes you to the exciting scene of my MSc graduation ceremony at the University of Siena, Italy, completed with the prestigious laurel wreath.

I graduated during COVID-19, but there was no graduation ceremony at that time. Years later, I was invited to attend an “Alumni conference” by the University of Siena, but the plan was still unclear. When we arrived in Siena, we came across that there was a convocation ceremony tomorrow. Hold on! What? Yes, after years of waiting, it was finally taking place on June 7, 2023.

The next morning, all the former students from 48 countries came together in the University’s Grand Piazza del Duomo, where all of the Professors and sponsors, robed in their academic attire, delivered speeches that inspired and reminded us of the responsibility that comes with education, which ended in the most captivating moment of adorning us with laurel wreaths stating that “Rating your thesis attributes by authority granted to me by director I confer you the Masters Diploma in Vaccinology and Drug Development, Congratulations!”. The weight of this academic success was alleviated by our family members’ joyful yells and applause.

Walking out of the ceremony, wreathed in laurel, walking through Siena’s streets with classmates I’ve never met in person, hearing these words “Complimenti! Felicitazioni!” from commoners, I came back to Dublin with an ethereal sensation of pride and belonging that will remain with me for life. Altogether, It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

Here are some glimpses of the ceremony:

P.S.: But this was not the end. I embarked on a wet-lab MSc in RCSI Dublin. As I am typing these lines, my MSc by Research work has just been submitted for examination, marking another hallmark and opening a new chapter in my life, “the PhD journey”. The new chapter – the new challenges and opportunities!

Written by Rabia Saleem

Summer Research: A Journey of Insight with the Cancer Bioengineering Group

Eight weeks ago, my journey into the intricate world of neuroblastoma began as I embarked on a remarkable research experience with the Cancer Bioengineering Group at RCSI. Guided by Dr. Olga Piskareva and supported by RCSI Research Summer School, this experience would transform my perspective on scientific exploration forever.

On my first day in the lab, excitement and nervousness mingled within me. But as I stepped into the bustling lab space, I was greeted with warm smiles and a sense of camaraderie among the researchers. The Cancer Bioengineering Group was known for its collaborative spirit, and it didn’t take long for me to feel like a valued member of the team.

RSS 2023 in Action

The research work was a perfect blend of diversity and fascination, encompassing both desk assignments and hands-on lab experiments. The highlight of it all was the chance to work with the cutting-edge 3D bio-printing machine, Rastrum. Witnessing the process of 3D bio-printing and using it to seed the Kelly cell line in various matrices left me in awe of the potential this technology held for future cancer therapies.

Yet, this journey extended beyond the realm of research. It was about the people – the passionate researchers who inspired and supported one another, the dedicated support staff who kept the lab running smoothly, and most notably, Dr. Olga Piskareva and Alysia Scott. They were more than mentors; they became friends and confidants, guiding me through challenges with unwavering support and celebrating our achievements as a team.

As the eight weeks drew to a close, I couldn’t help but reflect on the immense growth I had experienced professionally and personally. The cancer bioengineering field has unveiled the possibilities of using engineering principles to combat a disease that has touched countless lives worldwide.

This journey instilled in me a profound sense of purpose – a drive to contribute to the fight against neuroblastoma and other devastating illnesses. With a heart full of gratitude, I bid farewell to the Cancer Bioengineering Group at RCSI, knowing that the friendships forged and the knowledge gained would forever shape my future endeavours in the world of cancer research.

In the end, it wasn’t merely an eight-week stint; it was a transformational odyssey that solidified my passion for scientific discovery and my determination to make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.

Written by Mohammad Alabdulrahman, MED Class of 2026

A newly minted Dr. Catherine Murphy

Huge congrats to a newly minted Dr Catherine Murphy! ✨ She successfully defended her PhD work yesterday. Hard work and dedication paid off. Well done, Catherine!

We thank examiners Drs Oran Kennedy and Niamh Buckley for their time and expertise provided.

We also thank Neuroblastoma UK for their generous support!

New Orlean’s Red Beans & Rice

While completing my Master’s degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, I found the top-notch post-grad comfort food I’ve taken with me ever since. After a day of work, the last thing I want to do is come home and cook an entire meal. Luckily, red beans and rice can be adapted to a slow cooker. Allowing me to throw all my ingredients in and come home to an amazing-smelling apartment with the most satisfying warm bowl waiting for me.

There’s something to the name “The Big Easy” that describes New Orleans because the people and the food take life a bit slower and enjoy every savoury bit together. My favourite memory in New Orleans is when my friends and I prepped a massive stock of red beans and rice for the week of Mardi Gras. This is an entire week of festivities and parade floats where the city quite literally shuts down since everyone participates. It was so comforting every night (or early morning) to come back from the parades and dish out the prepped meal that would fill you up, stick to your bones, and help you fall sound asleep with more than enough energy for the next days of parades.

My first red beans and rice in New Orleans

Red beans and rice is a Cajun dish with Haitian influence and contains the “holy trinity” – bell pepper, onion, and celery. You can find this vegetable blend in the base of almost every Cajun meal, including etouffee, jambalaya, and gumbo. Red beans and rice are traditionally made with a stovetop pot set on a low boil all day. However, the ease of a slow cooker is made with the PhD student in mind as it also keeps well during the week. The most important piece is to get red beans and soak them for about 12 hours before cooking them. This will make the beans more digestible as well as more hearty. Andouille is a Cajun spiced sausage that might be at a speciality butcher shop. Another crucial ingredient, Slap Ya Mama (yes, you read that right), is only available in the U.S. Slap Ya Mama seasoning has its name because “every time a mama uses it, she receives a loving slap on the back and a kiss on the cheek for another great dish”. There are so many great memories I have from my time in New Orleans and I’m happy to share my favorite meal. I hope you are able to replicate this dish and taste the Southern Comfort that is very true for New Orleans.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Recipe:

Serves 6, Cook time is 4 –8 hours

  • 450 grams of dried red kidney beans (New Orleans Camelia brand recommended)
  • 450 grams Andouille sausage (or smoked), sliced ½ inch
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 4 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped and divided
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon Slap Ya Mama seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Handful of fresh parsley, chopped

For serving:

  • Cooked long-grain white rice
  • Hot sauce

Instructions:

  1. Rinse beans and soak.
  2. Brown sausages in oil on both sides. Set aside.
  3. In the same pan, add garlic and onion, sauté for 2-3 minutes until transparent. Then add the bell pepper, celery, and half of the green onions. Sauté for 5 minutes.
  4. To the slow cooker, add your cooked vegetables. Then add the red beans, black pepper, Slap Ya Mama, dried thyme, oregano, and bay leaves.
  5. Add the water and chicken broth.
  6. Set the slow cooker to high setting for 4 hours or low for 8 hours.
  7. When beans are ready, take out 1 ½ cups to mash and put back in pot.
  8. Remove the bay leaves and add the sausage back in. Cook until sausage is hot.
  9. Serve over a bowl of hot white rice with hot sauce, green onions, and parsley for garnish.

Notes:

  • In New Orleans, they also add a split-faced grilled sausage to the top.
  • This can be adapted to an Instant Pot (Pressure Cooker) as well. Just set the pressure to high for 60 minutes with a 15-minute natural release.
  • If the beans seem too thick, add more water.
  • This is a great dish that can be stored for a week or frozen for two months.

Enjoy!!!

Written by Alysia Scott

Navigating Time and Tasks in the PhD Journey – The Struggles of Autonomy

Embarking on a PhD is an exhilarating endeavour. It offers the freedom to structure one’s own time. But this autonomy can be a double-edged sword; while providing a sense of flexibility and leisure, it also presents challenges in managing time effectively, prioritising tasks, and maintaining a productive schedule. In the context of a PhD, self-discipline and efficient planning quickly become the guiding stars of success.

The absence of rigid working hours requires a strong sense of self-motivation and discipline to stay on track. Without proper time management, it’s easy to fall into the trap of leisurely indulgence, neglecting the essential tasks and milestones that shape the PhD journey. Never before did I appreciate nagging parents, teachers or just people to which you could outsource motivation and feedback as easily. In a PhD, you’re on your own. You’re the only one who truly cares that what you’re working on is getting done. Done well and done at the right time. There is your supervisor, of course, and maybe collaborators. But it is not their job to stand behind you and say have you done this yet or that yet. They don’t see how much work you do or don’t do in a day. No one tells you to get off your arse when you’ve just stared at a blank screen for 20 minutes, and no one tells you to give it a rest when a simple problem turns out to be far more time-consuming and exhausting than expected because things still need to be kept moving. In the end, you can only rely on yourself to tell you whether you have worked enough or not. No one else knows. That can be extremely motivating and similarly defeating when you feel like you’ve done nothing but work for a couple of weeks and the results still aren’t there, so it seems like it doesn’t make a difference.

To conquer the time management challenge, prioritisation becomes paramount. As a PhD student, the spectrum of tasks can quickly seem overwhelming. Between different avenues and tasks that would progress your project, keeping up with writing, creating figures for adjacent projects, producing posters and presentations for conferences, writing blog posts, and making videos for funders and meetings, there always are more things to do in a day than could possibly be crammed in on the most productive of days. Figuring out how to manage urgency and importance becomes crucial to staying afloat. Identifying the most critical tasks and allocating time accordingly ensures progress and prevents the accumulation of unfinished work.

Navigating the realm of a PhD

Maintaining a reasonable schedule becomes a balancing act. Especially when you pepper a couple of meetings in the very early morning because your collaborators are in a different time zone. And yet creating and adhering to a schedule is the foundation of effective time management. Despite the constant changes and different requirements, I find it helps immensely to establish a routine to cultivate discipline and maintains an easy overview over the week to allow myself to check what has been achieved and how long it took, so I can gauge how much more I need to do or whether I get to relax and leave half an hour early another day. It is crucial to strike a balance between focused research, data analysis, writing, and personal well-being. Regularly reassessing and readjusting the schedule as priorities shift guarantees that all aspects of the PhD journey receive the attention they deserve.

Navigating the realm of a PhD requires a delicate dance between self-motivation and effective time management. While the allure of autonomy can be tempting, the importance of prioritising tasks and maintaining a schedule cannot be understated. By striking a balance between work and personal well-being, the PhD journey can be transformed into a harmonious symphony of progress and achievement. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

As you embark on your own PhD adventure, you realise every day that time is a precious resource, and effective management is the compass that guides you toward success.

Written by Ronja Struck

Will there ever be one cure for cancer?

TL;DR – probably not.

Cancer is a disease which will have an impact on most people throughout their lifetimes, and there are few things that can bring people to agreement more than wanting a cure for this disease. But despite countless years of financial investments and researchers who dedicate their careers to cancer, we still don’t have a “cure”, and it can be difficult for non-scientists to fathom why.

One key concept to understand here is that cancer is not a single disease, does not have a single cause, and therefore cannot have a single cure. The differences between neuroblastoma and breast cancer are vast. And similarly, between patients with the same cancer type (e.g. two patients with breast cancer), the differences can be equally as big. Let’s for a minute, take an analogy of a large business company. (Disclaimer, I have never studied business in my life, so please humour me). The company is run by a CEO and board of directors and has many different departments with managers and teams of workers with specific roles. Suddenly, business is declining, and the company is not sure why. For one business, maybe this is down to someone in the Communications team spreading misinformation. For another, maybe a mistake has been made in the Finance team, which has had a knock-on effect on the other departments. Maybe Human Resources have not been properly reprimanding staff who have broken protocol. With hundreds of staff working in the company, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the problem has arisen, which has negatively impacted the company as a whole.

Standard business hierarchy, created with BioRender.com

Human cells aren’t so different to a company. They have a central “nucleus” tasked with controlling the functioning of the cell as a whole (Board of Directors/Management). They have proteins which relay messages inside the cell, as well as outside with other surrounding cells (Communications). They have proteins which are responsible for detecting when something goes wrong, to correct or destroy whatever is acting out of place (Human Resources). Issues within any of the “departments” in a human cell can potentially lead to cancer, and just like our business model, it can be hard to trace where the problem arose, and it is often different between two cancers.

Cell signalling networks, or the “business departments” within a cell, from Reactome.org

For decades cancer was treated with chemotherapy, famous for attacking the good healthy cells as well as the bad. The research focus has now shifted towards more targeted therapies. An example of this is Herceptin therapy for breast cancer. This therapy targets a specific protein called HER2. HER2 is a team within the Communications department in breast cells. It receives communications from outside the cell, which tells the cell it’s time to grow, and relays this message to the Nucleus, which instructs proteins involved in cell growth to start this process. However, in some breast cancers, there are too many members in the HER2 team, all relaying this message to the Nucleus, resulting in too much cell growth. Herceptin is a drug which specifically targets HER2 and prevents it from relaying this message, effectively preventing the cancer cells from growing. While this can be very efficient at preventing tumour growth in HER2+ breast cancer, HER2 is not the culprit in all breast cancers. It is estimated that only 1 in 5 breast cancers have too many members in the HER2 team (Irish Cancer Society), and so targeting this will be inefficient in treating 4 out of 5 breast cancers. Meanwhile, cells of other cancers, such as liver or thyroid cancer, may not even have a HER2 team.

Hopefully, it is becoming clear why one “cure” will likely never be a reality. All cancers are different, all have different causes, and different employees breaking protocol. So, a one-size-fits-all approach simply can’t work. Instead, we need to focus on finding common company malpractices for each cancer, such as HER2 in breast cancer, generate a repertoire of different targeted treatment options depending on the various causes of cancer, and treat each patient as an individual investigation to determine what employee/protein is acting out of line to cause their cancer, so we can specifically reprimand them.

Written by Catherine Murphy