Irish Cancer Society summer students in focus

Our Summer Studentship programme offers undergraduate students the opportunity to undertake a cancer research project and to work with researchers in high-quality research environments.

Learn about the research undertaken by some of this summer's students.

Fanxi Meng

We were delighted to award one of our 2021 Translational Biomedical Research Summer Studentship awards to Fanxi Meng, a biochemistry and molecular biology student in University College Dublin. Fanxi’s project was the 'Isolation and Characterisation of Extracellular Vesicles from Normal and Cancer Cells’, working under the supervision of Professor Margaret McGee.

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are tiny particles released by all cell types in the body, they are found in the blood. They contain molecules that play key roles in cell-cell communication. There is a difference between normal cells and cancer cells in the number of EVs they release and the cargo they carry. EVs have therefore become increasingly of interest in cancer research as biomarkers of disease. Emerging evidence has suggested that EVs regulate communication between cancer cells and surrounding healthy cells, which can accelerate the spread of various cancers. Previous work in the McGee lab demonstrates that EVs can even change the function of normal immune cells.

Fanxi aimed to further explore the role of EVs in blood cancer, specifically, the role of EVs in altering immune cell function in multiple myeloma. Multiple Myeloma is an incurable blood disorder affecting hundreds of people in Ireland each year. Research is urgently needed to improve outcomes for multiple myeloma patients. Fanxi’s research demonstrates that EVs from multiple myeloma promote immune cells to release factors that accelerate cancer progression, thus providing insights into multiple myeloma progression that could be used in future for diagnosis and treatment.

We spoke to Fanxi about his experience of life in a high-quality research environment.:

“The studentship allowed me to come to the lab on a daily basis for eight weeks over the summer, where I learned a wide variety of laboratory techniques... Working closely with PhD and post-doc researchers in the lab allowed me to appreciate the collaborative and dynamic cancer research environment, where researchers work closely with clinicians based in Dublin hospitals to obtain primary cancer patient blood. This provided valuable insights into the active field of translational cancer research.”

As part of this experience of a working research environment, Fanxi experienced the highs and lows of biomedical research. Thankfully he saw the benefit of this:

“In science, experiments don’t work out every time... The most significant accomplishment of my studentship was that I was able to deal with unexpected experiment results and was able to change plans to make things work... Being able to figure issues out and adjust experiment plans to bring the project back on track when experiments failed has been extremely rewarding and satisfying.”

It would appear that not only has this failed to deter Fanxi, but it has motivated him to continue on the research path:

“I have always been interested in cancer biology and wanted to pursue a career in cancer research. This studentship allowed me to get a taste of actual cancer research in a lab environment and to see the daily life of cancer researchers, which makes me appreciate the huge impact of cancer research- especially translational cancer research- on improving a patient’s diagnosis and prognosis… This has encouraged me to do a PhD after graduation and has made me more determined to pursue a research career.”

The Irish Cancer Society is thrilled to hear Fanxi’s motivation has only grown, and we wish him all the best in his final year and in his future PhD applications!

Megan McAuley

Megan McAuley was awarded an Irish Cancer Society Translational Research Summer Studentship in 2020. Due to Covid restrictions in 2020, Megan undertook her research project this summer, having just completed a BSc in Biological and Biomedical Science in NUI Maynooth. Megan’s research looked at the ‘Inhibition of natural killer cells by tumour-derived complement in oesophageal adenocarcinoma’, working under the supervision of Dr Mark Robinson.

The goal of this research project was to investigate why people with a form of cancer called oesophageal adenocarcinoma (OAC) do not respond to the usual type of therapy, called chemo-radiation therapy.

Worryingly, this therapy does not work for 70% of people with OAC. These people are said to have radio-resistant OAC. Research suggests that the cancer cells of patients with radio-resistant OAC are able to hide from a certain part of the immune system, called the natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are a type of white blood cell that recognise and destroy cancer cells in the body. It is hypothesised that OAC cancer cells hide from NK cells by producing molecules called complement proteins, which might interfere with how NK cells work. It is unclear whether this is due to complement on the surface of OAC cancer cells, or if the OAC cancer cells produce and release the complement proteins.

To investigate if the OAC cancer cells produce and release complement proteins, Megan used samples from radio-resistant OAC cells, and OAC cells that respond to therapy (treatment-responsive cells). Megan added these cancer cells to NK cells to see if either type of cancer cell interfered with the ability of NK cells to function. Megan found that instead of stopping NK cells from working, cancer samples actually made the NK cells work better. Megan also showed that the NK cells are not switched off by a particular complement protein, called C3a.

This told us that while complement on the surface of OAC cancer cells may interfere with how NK cells work, the complement released by OAC cancer cells is not affecting NK cells. More research is needed to understand how complement on the surface of OAC cells influences how immune cells work, so that we can find new ways to improve treatment for people with OAC.

This summer studentship programme gives undergraduate students the chance to develop important research skills, as Megan describes:

“During my research project, I learned a variety of practical and analytical skills that are important to translational cancer research… I also gained skills in data analysis… I gave several presentations during weekly lab meetings to explain the background and results of my project, which helped me to improve in public speaking.”

Running your own research project offers a very different experience from planned lab experiments in college. Megan explains, “From my experience, the most significant lesson from this project was learning to keep an open mind while you are researching a question – your results might surprise you or leave you with more questions than when you started! It is also satisfying to know that this research gets us one small step closer to figuring out how to improve treatments and save lives.”

“This studentship has further increased my interest in the field of cancer research. Now I’m considering doing a PhD even more strongly, and with a certain area of research in mind.”

We at the Irish Cancer Society are thrilled that Megan had a positive experience, and we wish her the very best with her future research plans!

Omar Aftab

We were delighted to award Omar Aftab with a Social, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences Summer Studentship this summer. Omar is a student of applied psychology in University College Cork. Omar’s project was aimed at 'Reducing susceptibility to cancer misinformation via a simple accuracy-nudge intervention', working under the supervision of Dr Gillian Murphy.

According to models of health behaviour, people rely on health information to make lifestyle choices and to choose appropriate treatments for their health problems. However, many people are now exposed to health misinformation, health-related claims which are deemed false due to a lack of scientific evidence. Cancer misinformation is thought to have especially damaging impacts, as it can lead people to neglect advice from cancer experts, engage in behaviours that increase their risk of developing cancer, and seek alternative cancer therapies in place of evidence-based treatments.

Omar’s project trialled an ‘accuracy-nudge’ intervention designed to reduce people's susceptibility to cancer misinformation, as indexed by participants' intentions to behave in ways encouraged by true cancer headlines and false cancer headlines. The intervention consisted of three headlines unrelated to cancer, to which participants assigned subjective accuracy ratings. Based on previous research, it was expected that asking people to consider the accuracy of headlines unrelated to cancer would prime participants to assess the accuracy of all materials with which they were presented during the experiment.

Participants were randomly assigned to conditions with or without the accuracy nudge intervention, after which all participants were presented with four true cancer headlines and two false cancer headlines (randomly selected from a pool of four false cancer headlines). Later in the study, all participants were asked about their intentions regarding eight behaviours, each of which corresponded to one of the four true or four false cancer headlines from earlier in the study.

These health behavioural intentions were analysed to answer three key research questions:

  1. Does exposure to cancer misinformation affect health behaviour intentions?
  2. Does an accuracy-nudge intervention affect health behaviour intentions?
  3. Is the effect of cancer misinformation on health behaviour intentions (if one exists) moderated by exposure to an accuracy nudge intervention?

Omar and Gillian are hoping to publish the results of this study in a peer-reviewed journal in the coming months. We look forward to reading your findings, Omar!

This summer studentship programme aims to give undergraduate students in the areas of Social, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences the opportunity to engage in the area of cancer research. Omar reported on his experience:

“When I hear the words 'cancer research', I tend to think of people in white lab coats looking down microscopes or staring into Petri dishes. However, working and reflecting on my project did help me to widen my perception of what cancer research was and could be. Through designing and administering my intervention, I came to believe that cancer research is not only interested in the mechanisms of cancer and cancer treatment, but that it should also be interested in how we can better inform the public about cancer or alternatively, how we can help the public to inform themselves about cancer.”

“The studentship gave me an insight into how cancer research at the level of population interventions and public health can be of benefit to the public and how the cancer research environment may be a much more diverse one than I had previously imagined.”

It’s great to hear Omar’s experience of cancer research. We wish Omar the best of luck with his upcoming publication and in his future research career.

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