Alonso Garcia Ruiz is PhD student at Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology, Spain who received EACR Travel Fellowship funding to take up a lab placement at the Centre for Medical Image Computing, University College London, UK between September and December 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.

Alonso Garcia Ruiz

Name: Alonso Garcia Ruiz
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology, Spain
Host institute: Centre for Medical Image Computing, University College London, UK
Dates of visit: 29 September – 29 December 2022
Research: With a special medical image called diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance, we can see how water molecules move within the body. This lets us know the vascularity and cellularity properties of the body tissues from an image, without doing any surgery. In cancer disease of the bone, this information is paramount for an accurate diagnosis and treatment assessment, because other medical images fail to show enough contrast in the bone tissues. Our purpose is to apply the latest diffusion imaging methods to establish this medical image as the reference for the clinical evaluation of bone disease. 

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

When the opportunity of visiting another lab during my PhD was presented, I was thrilled, but at the same time I knew my budget was quite limited. The EACR is renowned for providing ample support to oncological research, and I did not hesitate to apply, following the advice of other researchers that are members or that had had contact with the EACR one way or another.  Being awarded a Travel Fellowship has made it possible to transfer invaluable knowledge that can ultimately make a real impact on cancer research, along with a unique personal experience. 

Why did you choose this host lab?

Postdoc researcher and MRI physicist in our home centre, Francesco Grussu, carried out his PhD in the same university of the host lab and, therefore, knew of most people there, including Laura Panagiotaki. Having met with him and knowing the project I was working with, he proposed a stay in his former university, where he became an expert in MRI. With him, I first met Laura Panagiotaki in the ISMRM Annual Meeting in London, May 2022, where we set forward the collaboration that, thanks to the EACR Travel Fellowship, would then become a reality. 

“My stay has saved me valuable time and unnecessary headaches, providing a shortcut to the world of diffusion-MRI that I can use in my research”

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

During my stay, I have been able to apply different models of the water diffusion within body tissues that can match the signal from diffusion-MRI. These models rely on assumptions and predefined parameters that must be set sensibly. I have learned about customizing the models and fine-tuning the parameters to obtain a good fit for the signal, and also to evaluate whether the results make sense from a biophysical point of view. That way, the tissue structure can be described in terms of its water diffusivity, the vascularity and cellularity in each voxel of the image.

Furthermore, these properties were extracted for benign and malignant regions on the MRI, and then compared with measures from real tissue samples (digitalized histopathology), so that the metrics from diffusion-MRI are validated against the underlying tissue structures. Finally, we found that diffusion-MRI metrics show significant differences among malignancies with different grades and also between malignant and benign regions, results that were sent as abstract to the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. This highlights the potential of the technique to effectively evaluate cancer earlier and in deeper detail, ultimately for the benefit of the patient. 

Alonso presenting his abstract at a conference during his trip

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

In order to apply successful modelling of diffusion-MRI to bone metastases, it was necessary for me to understand many concepts about both the technical aspects and the biological physiology that the models try to capture. Furthermore, stepping from the theory onto the applied methods, I needed the support of experts to understand each step and to interpret the results. Modelling can be an art and the best way to master it starts by looking at the work of the current researchers and the models they apply. My stay has saved me valuable time and unnecessary headaches, providing a shortcut to the world of diffusion-MRI that I can use in my research. 

Was the host institute very different from your own?

Being within a huge university campus in a centre for medical imaging with many dedicated departments is quite different from our home lab, where we are the only imaging group among “wet labs”. I have come to realise that there is big potential in having other technical departments close by, such as multidisciplinary knowledge, innovative ideas, collaborations and common resources. On the other hand, it might be harder to manage such a joint effort in an efficient manner and, more importantly, the translational prospects can be challenged when looking for biological and clinical validation support. 

Alonso with fellow PhD students, Olivia Prior and Carlos Macarro

Did you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you?

I have met Snigdha Sen, a PhD student with Laura Panagiotaki, who looked over me and helped me anytime with data and analyses. Together with Laura, they have made it possible for me to feel welcome, to design and apply methods that were new to me, learning and being able to advance in our research findings. They are both doing an incredible work on the field and I feel proud of having been a part of it. 

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

During this trip, I had the opportunity to attend seminars and workshops, coming in contact with top-tier researchers and fellow students, working ever passionately in different medical applications. I had the opportunity to meet people that recovered from cancer and that now do their absolute best to promote cancer research. I believe that improving the world we live in should be our primary goal as a society, but also that many are blind to the importance of science in that path. For that reason, I would like to express my gratitude towards all people involved in making research matter, especially to everyone at the EACR, and also I would like to encourage researchers to believe in what they do, to never forget why they do it and to support and help each other towards fair and open science. 

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.