“A personal highlight of my trip was submitting my first-author paper” – Helena Sorger’s Travel Fellowship

Helena Sorger working in the lab with Johan Israelian.

Helena Sorger is an EACR Travel Fellowship recipient who returned from Canada in August 2022.

The EACR has joined forces with Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,000 to enable early-career cancer researchers to gain new skills through a short-term visit to a lab or research group in another country.

You can read about other Travel Fellowship awardees and their experiences here.

Name: Helena Sorger
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Medical University of Vienna, Austria
Host institute: University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada
Dates of visit: 11 July 2022 – 05 August 2022.
Research: My current work focuses on the development of novel treatment options for rare and aggressive T-cell cancers. There are very few treatment options available for patients with progressed disease, where the T-cells often disseminate into the organs and blood leading to poor quality of life and high mortality. I aimed to identify drivers of disease progression and apply a set of novel small molecule drugs to target them.

Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?

I applied for the EACR Travel Fellowship to complete experiments for my PhD project. It was the best way to meet the remaining aims of the project as it provided the opportunity to work side-by-side with colleagues experienced in the field and provided access to state-of-the-art facilities. It was also a great opportunity for me to learn a new technique and get experience working abroad.

Why did you choose the host lab?

The laboratory of Prof. Dr. Gunning is specialized in drug discovery and the development of small molecule target-specific degraders. Their well-established expertise in the fields of medicinal chemistry and drug development, particularly in relation to STAT targeting, were the main factors that initiated the collaboration for my project and led to my research stay.

Can you shortly summarise the research you did and what you learned on your visit?

My PhD project focused on leukemic cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (L-CTCL), which is a very rare and aggressive T-cell malignancy affecting mainly elderly adults and leading to poor quality of life and high mortality. Early stage patients are generally successfully treated with conservative skin-directed therapies or single-agent chemotherapeutics, however, patients presenting with blood involvement have limited therapeutic options available. Aiming to identify vulnerable nodes, we detected STAT3/5 gains in 74% of patients in our cohort (n = 17/23). Our efforts to target the identified vulnerable node, led to the identification of a newly classified multi-kinase inhibitor, IQDMA, which induces apoptosis of L-CTCL cells carrying STAT3/5 gains. During my visit, we wanted to investigate IQDMA downstream effects in L-CTCL by applying a chemoproteomics approach. These studies revealed dose-dependent changes at the protein level and highlighted key direct and in-direct targets of IQDMA in L-CTCL. Furthermore, I also had the opportunity to characterize a novel class of PROTAC degraders using biological and biophysical assays and apply them on cells derived from various cancer entities.

What were you able to do that you could not have achieved in your home lab?

Thanks to the Travel Fellowship I had access to state-of-the-art facilities for chemical synthesis, biophysical and biochemical studies, and level II cell biology at the Gunning lab. Most importantly, I had access to ́newest in class ́ devices, such as Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) systems, namely the Orbitrap Fusion Lumos mass spectrometer, that enabled tracking of dose-dependent changes in L-CTCL cells upon IQDMA treatment at the protein level thereby providing a better understanding of the mechanism of action. I also very much enjoyed spending my free time writing and learning at UTM ́s award-winning facilities, such as the Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre.

Helena Sorger visiting Niagara Falls.

Did you take part in any interesting local/cultural activities?

During my stay, I visited the town of Toronto, including the well-known Univ. of Toronto St. George (UTSG) campus, famous for its historical buildings. It was very impressive and made me feel like in a Harry Potter movie. Furthermore, I visited Niagara Falls, which was a remarkable experience and reminded me of how small we are in the face of nature.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

A personal highlight of my trip was submitting my first-author paper to EMBO Molecular Medicine during my stay after the completion of the experiments, bringing me a step closer to the completion of my PhD studies. It was a both thrilling and intimidating experience, which I hope will lead to a successful publication.

Was the host institution very different from your own? Was there anything you particularly liked about the host institution?

One of the main and very noticeable differences was the relaxed atmosphere at the UTM. I believe it arises from the goal-oriented mindset, worker/student-friendly environment with flexible working hours and adequate resources. I also very much enjoyed the design and variety of facilities on campus and the wealth of student activities offered.

Helena Sorger and Dr. Elvin. D. Araujo, who helped organize her stay

Did you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you? Tell us about them.

I would especially like to thank Dr. Elvin de Araujo, PhD, research manager at the Gunning lab, for his help and support during the organization of my stay. Besides being an amazing scientist, Elvin is a very inspiring and kind person who made sure that everything is running according to plan and that I am content with my stay. I look forward to continuing our collaboration!

How has this visit been beneficial to your research and your career?

I believe that I have benefited from this trip in several different aspects, the first being work-related – having the opportunity to engage in in-depth discussions with medicinal chemists gave me a different perspective on the work I was doing. Furthermore, the experiments that we performed enabled the completion of a three-year-long project in which we provide a novel insight into L-CTCL disease progression and novel therapeutic possibilities. Secondly, I benefited personally by being exposed to the new environment and experiencing a different level of lab management. The research stay inspired me to continue my career in science and to implement a goal-oriented mindset into day-to-day life.

Does your lab plan to do any future collaboration/publication etc. with the host lab? 

During my stay, we started a new project focused on the development of PROTAC degraders for various rare and so far incurable diseases, where I will be taking over the biological assessment of the compounds in the selected cell models. I am excited about this collaboration and have no doubt that it will again be fruitful!

Want to find out more?

If you are interested in applying for the Travel Fellowship scheme, please click here for more information: EACR Travel Fellowships.