Translational Research Summer Studentships 2021

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

The winners of this year’s programme talk about their projects and the impact they hope their research will have. 

  • Researcher: Robyn Stanley, BSc Applied Biology student at Limerick Institute of Technology
  • Project: ‘Improving the efficacy of HDAC6 inhibitors in non-small cell lung cancer'

In Europe, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men and the third most common cancer in women. Globally, lung cancer contributes to more cancer deaths than any other type of cancer. While we have witnessed some improvements for lung cancer patients, the outcomes and treatment options for the majority remains poor. One particular type of lung cancer called non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for 85% of all cases of lung cancer. 

Metabolism is the way in which our cells make energy. Non-small cell lung cancer cells have developed very clever and efficient ways to boost their metabolism and stay alive. We have discovered that a protein called histone deacetylase 6 (HDAC6), plays a very important role in maintaining this clever metabolic platform in NSCLC. Blocking HDAC6 from working in the NSCLC cancer cells drives the cells into an energy crisis. However, the cells are very smart and again they change how they get energy, in an attempt to keep themselves alive and resist death. 

In this project, we will use another drug with our HDAC6 blocking drug to turn off this new way which the NSCLC cancer cells are getting energy. Adding these two drugs together, will result in a complete energy shut down and so the cells will die. If we can do this, we believe we can design new ways to target lung cancer in patients.  

The research project that I am proposing here has the potential to deliver impact, both to Ireland and globally. Lung cancer is a devastating disease that impacts many patients and their families in Ireland. Lung cancer accounts for 18% of deaths in women and 22% of deaths in men, in Ireland. It is the 4th most common invasive cancer in Ireland and accounts for 11% of all cancer. This research project offers the potential to provide new treatment options for NSCLC patients and so help reduce the devastating impact that the disease can have on patients and families across Ireland.

  1. Why did you apply for the Irish Cancer Society studentship programme?
    I applied for the Irish Cancer Society studentship programme as I have found myself to have a keen interest in cancer research, and I wished to improve my skills in this area. This studentship programme provided an excellent opportunity for me to expand on my laboratory skillset to date and to broaden my knowledge and laboratory techniques in this field of cancer research.
  2. What made you interested in the topic of your research?
    My interest in this topic was sparked after reading several scientific papers relating to non-small cell lung cancer. I was instantly captivated by the research done to date in this area. The impact that lung cancer has had and still has on people worldwide has driven me into this field of work. For me to be given the opportunity to work in this field, will allow me to assist in developing/producing a novel drug that will hopefully one day stop the damaging effect of such ghastly disease.
  3. What do you personally hope to get out of the studentship?
    Personally, by fulfilling this studentship, my primary aim is to enhance my research capabilities and to critically assess the current state of research surrounding my topic. I wish to apply the experience I gain and the knowledge I learn to my studies in the future and the career I hope to have within research. This translational research project will not only grant me the chance to work in a research setting but to explore the expertise in Dr Dowling’s laboratory. My goal is to pursue in post graduate studies in this exciting area of research on completion of my BSc degree in Applied Biology.
  4. What impact you hope your research will have?
    I hope this studentship will lead to positive outcomes and conclusions after carrying out the translational research on non-small cell lung cancer. I hope to have significantly evaluated all possible aspects of my research and to produce new information that will aid in developing novel treatment for non-small cell lung cancer. In addition, I wish the exposure from this research at such an early stage of my career will generate great momentum for my career going forward. 
  • Researcher: Fanxi Meng, BSc Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University College Dublin
  • Project: Isolation and characterisation of extracellular vesicles from normal and cancer cells

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are small particles secreted by all cells, which play important roles in cancer progression. Normal cells release EVs at a certain level to export cellular waste and use the cargoes within the particle to communicate with neighbouring cells. Interestingly, cancer cells tend to secrete more EVs with altered cargoes, which enable uncontrolled cell growth and invasion to neighboring cells. These vesicles can be detected in blood, making them a promising biomarker for cancer detection.

Early detection is essential to improve the outcome from cancers, especially aggressive cancers such as pancreatic cancer. However, the role of EVs in pancreatic cancer progression and detection has remained unclear.  

My project will be investigating how pancreatic cancer EVs drive cancer progression. I have a keen interest in discovering biomarkers for cancer detection and anticipate that this project will provide fundamental understandings for further studies on exploiting the potential of EVs as a biomarker for the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

  1. Why did you apply for the Irish Cancer Society studentship programme?
    I applied for this studentship programme as I would like to gain more experience in cancer research. Irish Cancer Society kindly provides supports for undergraduate students to undertake a cancer-focused translational research project, which is an excellent opportunity to improve my research skills and an excellent preparation for pursuing a career in cancer research. Moreover, this studentship supports me to do valuable research that benefits people suffering cancer.
  2. What made you interested in the topic of your research?
    There are two main reasons that made me interested in this specific area of research. Firstly, pancreatic cancer is an extremely deadly disease as most patients diagnosed with this type of cancer are in the late stages which ultimately leads to death. Therefore, early detection is critical to improving the outcome from this aggressive disease. I am keen on cancer biomarker research, and I wish to identify non-invasive biomarkers for the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Another reason is that emerging evidence has revealed that EVs are a promising biomarker for the detection of many cancers including pancreatic cancer. I would like to exploit the potential of EVs as a biomarker from the basic, which is investigating how pancreatic cancer EVs drive cancer progression. 
  3. What do you personally hope to get out of the studentship? 
    In completion of this project, I hope that I could get an exposure of cancer research and improve my research skills in this field. Since cancer research is a diverse area of research, I hope that I could gain insights into cancer research from various perspectives by shadowing other lab members while undertaking my own project focusing on EV and biomarker discovery. This will broaden my horizons in cancer biology and figure out the most intriguing area of cancer research where I would like to investigate in my later studies. More importantly, I hope this translational research will ultimately contribute to the discovery of a novel approach for early cancer diagnosis. 
  4. What impact do you hope your research will have?
    EV research is an emerging area of research that could benefit patients suffering from various diseases such as cancer. The project that I am conducting is a fundamental step of EV cancer research. Since this field of research is quite new and comprehensive studies have not been found, I hope that my research would contribute to the current understanding of this topic. Moreover, EV research is highly translatable. I hope that my research would ultimately be translated into the clinic to provide patients with a non-invasive method for early cancer detection.

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