Back in mid-February, 125 people from 29 countries met in Bergamo, Italy for the 5th edition of A Matter of Life or Death: Mechanisms, Models and Therapeutic Opportunities. 98.9% of participants said they would recommend the conference to others. If you would like to know more about the conference, read the A Matter of Life or Death 2020 conference review here.

We awarded five EACR-Worldwide Cancer Research Meeting Bursaries to assist early-career members to attend the conference and present their work. Each bursary included a free registration and funds of up to €500 to support travel and accommodation costs.

Here you can read the reports from the A Matter of Life or Death Meeting Bursary recipients.

1Sinan Karakaya, PhD student

Home insitutution: Division of Solid Tumor Translational Oncology, Institute for Developmental Cancer Therapeutics, West German Cancer Center, University Hospital Essen & German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, partner site Essen) and German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) have two different molecular subtypes, classical and quasi-mesenchymal (QM). These subtypes show distinct therapy response and survival. For example, patients with classical subtype represents better progression and longer survival compared to patients with QM subtype. To progress and survive in tumour bulk, these two subtypes uses different metabolic adaptations like classical subtype’s excessive use of lipids and QM subtype’s dependence on glucose for energy production and cellular building blocks. In my project, we investigate metabolic differences between PDAC subtypes and evaluate their susceptibility to metabolic targeting to suggest novel subtype specific therapy options.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

It was a good opportunity for me to present my work to fellow colleagues and renowned scientists. It was also the first conference that I could discuss my work with so many scientists during the poster sessions. I also gained insights about autophagy and ferroptosis which I didn’t know much about.

Were there any social/networking highlights you want to tell us about?

Even though I couldn’t speak to Daniel Murphy, I had a chance to meet with Sharon Tooze and Brent Stockwell during the poster session. As well as this, I met a lot of fellow PhD students and scientists while having lunch or drinking coffee. This meant it was very easy to connect with speakers and other attendees.

Sinan Karakaya
Sinan in the lab

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

The food and the venue was much better than most conferences I have previously attended. It was my first conference with a focus on specific topics. I enjoyed listening to different aspects of the same topic from different people. I believe this makes it easy to understand each topic covered in the conference for those that aren’t as strong in the subject.

Did you take part in any interesting local activities in your free time outside of the conference?

I visited 3 different craft beer pubs that sold beers produced in the area of Lombardy. This was surprising and I did not expect to find so many local brewers in Bergamo. Also, I visited the old town after the conference on February 14. I really like the historic city and its narrow cobbled streets and squares. I had Italian pastry and craft beers for lunch under the sun while watching the breath-taking view from the Venetian walls.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

The talks from Almut Schulze and Sarah-Maria Fendt showed me that I am on the right track and I should continue with cancer metabolism. Further, the Meet the Experts event was very inspiring in terms of seeing the hurdles of science career from two different aspects. It was also encouraging for my future career.

Sinan Karakaya
Sinan presenting his work

When you got home, was there anything that you immediately wanted to tell your colleagues about?

I discussed with my supervisor about how we can connect my project with ferroptosis and autophagy. This was because the results from the speakers suggests that we can see some metabolic differences related with autophagy and ferroptosis between pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma subtypes. Obviously, both processes are used more by the cells or tumours that are highly proliferative, like quasi-mesenchymal subtype of pancreatic cancer, so inhibition of these processes may show subtype-specific effects.

Have you brought back any specific knowledge that has benefited your research?

Firstly, I understand the reason why statins works more effectively on one molecular subtype of pancreatic cancer than the other one thanks to Almut Schulze’s talk.

Secondly, I have learnt the relation of spermidine with autophagy and the distinct effects of autophagy on cells having different proliferation rates. This is thanks to Ann Katharina Simon’s talk. This is a connection with my own pancreatic cancer samples since we have different content of spermidine in our pancreatic cancer samples.

Thirdly, the relation between lipid metabolism and ferroptosis shown by Brent Stockwell was really interesting. The methods that he suggested for the detection of lipid peroxidase in samples would be very useful and provide me a new angle for my current research on lipid metabolism in pancreatic cancer.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you very much the opportunity to present in the conference, it would have been impossible without the bursary. Thanks a lot to the EACR for the organisation and their help.

2Marloes Christina Maria Jonkhout, PhD Student

Home institution: KU Leuven, Belgium

Our lab is interested in a regulating protein of one enzyme. This regulator is involved in attracting other proteins to the enzyme, which the enzyme will modify. This regulator-enzyme complex has a role in fixing damage in DNA and in the cycle of the cell. We have found that after losing the regulating protein, mice can no longer develop tumours on skin. We are interested to find out why.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

The session about senescence. I haven’t worked with a senescence for a long period of time, but I was already able to ask some questions to the invited speakers. This counts as a personal success for me! I also gained more knowledge about senescence by listening to the talks.

Marloes Christina Maria Jonkhout
Marloes presenting her work

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

This was my first international conference and I was quite hesitant. I went all by myself, without anybody from the lab joining. This was very frightening for a first conference and I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out that everybody was very open and positive towards new connections. I couldn’t have wished for a better first conference!

Did you take part in any interesting local activities in your free time outside of the conference?

The conference ran from Wednesday to Friday and I decided to stay in Bergamo for the weekend. My partner joined me on the Friday. Using the funicular, we went to the old city and enjoyed the small squares, streets, restaurants and coffee bars that Bergamo has to offer.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Just more than a week after returning, the coronavirus crisis developed rapidly in the northern part of Italy and especially in Bergamo. It hurts to think about all these residents in the beautiful city that are now sick, in the hospital or did not survive this crisis. I can only say that we were lucky and escaped through the eye of a needle..

3Elmira Vagapova, PhD Student

Home institution: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Russian Federation

My PhD project aims to define the novel mechanism of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells’ adaptation to the targeted therapy. AML is a malignant blood disorder, which is characterized by high heterogeneity among patients. The average age of people diagnosed with AML is 68 years. The prognosis for AML patients is very poor: 5-year survival is 5-10% and most patients develop secondary leukemia after the remission.

The exact causes of relapses are still unknown. As AML is the disease developing in the bone marrow, we are aimed at revealing particular cytokines and growth factors produced by stromal and immune cells responsible for the anti-leukemic effectiveness of clinically approved drugs. We aim at identifying signaling pathways that cause leukemic cells’ adaptation to receptor-tyrosine kinase inhibitors such as Imatinib and Quizartinib. We hope to reveal promising targets in the signaling pathways that are responsible for the formation of therapy-resistant AML cells. Our findings may be beneficial for the future development of novel effective treatment approaches for AML patients.

I met brilliant researchers from all over the world

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

One of the best parts of the conference was the “Meet the experts talk” with Sylvia Formenti and Verena Jendrossek. Two great scientists shared their personal experience of becoming a good leader. Both of them particularly stressed how important is to find the right mentor at any stage of your career. Prof. Formenti and Prof. Jendrossek are the best examples of scientific leaders with brilliant research careers and the ability to guide and inspire others. They led an informative discussion where a lot of questions were raised about their path to scientific leadership.

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

Compared to other conferences that I have attended, this meeting was gender-balanced. For me, that was very inspiring to listen to more than 10 women speakers who shared their successful research with others. I think that it is very important to focus on women in science nowadays. Also, I enjoyed the industry spotlights as the ability to get up-to-date information about recently developed research reagents, vectors and devices are very important when performing high-quality research.

Elmira Vagapova
Elmira at the end of the conference

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

When applying to the conference, I was keen to meet Clemens Schmitt to learn more about senescence. At the conference, he described in detail dynamic senescence state and senescence-associated reprogramming. Their findings are important for understanding the mechanisms of acquired therapy resistance by cancer cells. His results and findings were very interesting to me. I am now planning to measure the expression of histone demethylases in different leukemia cell lines to better understand their therapy responses.

When you got home, was there anything from the conference that you immediately wanted to tell your colleagues about?

The first thing I shared with my colleagues was the information about the drugs which can induce senescence. Manuel Serrano shared his vast knowledge in the pathological accumulation of senescent cells during the several diseases. The fact that CDK4/6 inhibitors induce cellular senescence was notable to me as the inhibitors of cyclin-dependent kinases are considered as promising anti-leukemia agents. The second thing I shared was Marco Demaria’s finding of the reduction of SASP in the cells treated with CDK4/6 inhibitors. Altogether, these results point at the therapeutic potential of CDK4/6 inhibitors combination with kinase inhibitors which could be tested on leukemia cells.

Have you brought back any specific knowledge that has benefited your research?

Elmira Vagapova
Elmira in the lab

During the Conference, I have learned a lot about registering different cellular responses to therapy (autophagy, ferroptosis, senescence) from the speakers and poster presenters. Also, a lot of new information was about drug combinations and recently developed treatment strategies for various cancer types. The information which I acquired during the conference inspired me to measure senescence in the system of leukemia cells co-cultured with the stromal cells which I treated with various kinase inhibitors. Also, I’ve learned about some promising drugs that I want to test on leukemia cells for their anti-cancer activity.

All in all, the 5th A Matter of Life or Death was valuable to me in several ways: I have learned about the mechanisms of cell death and survival and the methods of their registration; I met brilliant researchers from all over the world; got inspiration and new ideas for my PhD research project which I will try to realize shortly.

4Mónica Vara Pérez, PhD Student

Home institution: KU Leuven-VIB, Leuven, Belgium

I work in melanoma, a very aggressive type of skin cancer. In particular, my researches focusses on understanding how BNIP3 influences melanoma progression. BNIP3 is a mitochondrial protein that we have seen upregulated in melanoma patients. Our research shows that BNIP3 adapts melanoma cells’ metabolism and tumor microenvironment to support melanoma growth.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

It was my first oral presentation and I was impressed with the interest of the audience on my research. There were very good questions and lots of good feedback I obtained from top-notch experts on the field.

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

It was very interactive: the speakers were very approachable and keen on discussing data and field paradigms. I was very impressed with the open panels on future perspectives and women in science: all the speakers were very open, critical and honest. This engaged the audience into a powerful discussion.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

Thanks to the high-level speakers/attendees and the broad topics approached, my concepts of cancer biology and therapy have been broadened and challenged. This is very important since cancer biology is an evolving discipline and our knowledge should too.

Have you brought back any specific knowledge that has benefited your research?

I learnt a lot from different forms of cell death in cancer, in particular senescence. Although I was familiar with the concept of senescence, I was not aware of its multiple implications in cancer progression. The conference’s programme approached several of its dimensions unknown to me.

5Zulrahman Erlangga, Postdoctoral Researcher

Home institution: Hannover Medical School, Germany

After decades of extensive research to find the cure for cancer, we still have lots of work to do to understand the biological process of the disease and deliver better treatment to improve the survival of the patients. For many cancers, the process of cancer development is still poorly understood, so our lab is focusing on animal cancer models. We need  systems with similar characteristics to the human counterpart. This is so we can have a better understanding of the biological process. This will mean the drugs that are delivered to the patients will be more beneficial than harmful.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

Meeting with renowned scientists in their field brought a lot of joy and curiosity. The speakers were top-notch, and their presentations explained what we know and do not know in cancer research.

Zulrahman Erlangga
Zulrahman was with Eleni Fitsiou from ERIBA. Their posters were situated close by to each other and they discussed their research together.

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

I haven’t been to many conferences. However, compared to other conferences I have attended, this conference was very open and welcoming. The speakers and participants were willing to share their research and knowledge in the spirit of collaboration.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

Very much! I learnt a lot, and I hope I can bring the insights from the conference to my research. We have some projects that are not going anywhere, but the insights from the lectures and talks will hopefully change this. I had some great opportunities to talk with the speakers and participants. They encouraged me in the research direction I want to pursue.

When you got home, is there anything from the conference that you immediately wanted to tell your colleagues about?

Join EACR and attend its conferences… it really is worthwhile.