EACR Travel Fellowships are co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research and provide funds up to €3,000 to early-career cancer researchers. For more information on how to apply for Travel Fellowships, you can visit the EACR website.

Home institution and country: Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, UK
Host institution and country: Lauffenburger lab in the Biological Engineering Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA
Dates of visit: 04 November 2017 – 18 November 2017

My PhD project focuses on pancreatic cancer, in particular communication between tumour cells and healthy, un-mutated cells in the microenvironment. Pancreatic tumours can be made of up to 80% healthy ‘stromal’ cells, and tumour cells are known to ‘co-opt’ these stromal cells, reprogramming them and influencing them to support tumour growth. Additionally, we know that not all cancer cells are the same – different mutations can cause them to have different characteristics. My PhD is investigating whether these different cancer cells can in fact communicate and reprogram the stroma in different ways, potentially creating micro-environments that support the individual, specific needs of the tumour cells.

How did you hear about EACR Travel Fellowships / why did you decide to apply?

I heard about the EACR Travel Fellowships from my colleagues at my host institute as a great way to support travel to another institution. I always knew I wanted to gain experience in another lab as part of my PhD as I saw it as a great opportunity to gain valuable additional skills, as well as gain insight into what working in another country would be like. The EACR Travel Fellowship made this possible by providing the financial support to undertake the visit.

Why did you choose the host lab?

I was really excited to visit Professor Lauffenburger’s lab due to their strong emphasis on engineering and computational work. I am very interested in systems biology and the idea of combining computational and modelling approaches with data generated by wet lab biology. During my PhD, I have generated several large data sets through lab experiments, and so Professor Lauffenburger’s lab was the perfect place to come to learn about how to integrate those data sets and gain additional biological insights.

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

During my PhD, I generated an in vitro system of 7 pancreatic cancer ‘sub-clones’ and extensively characterised them. I investigated how the different sub-clones are able to differentially reprogram naïve pancreatic fibroblasts, and in turn how each sub-clone is reciprocally affected by interactions with fibroblasts, by analysing gene expression changes using RNA sequencing. The purpose of my visit to Boston was then to leverage these expression data sets to build a model of what mediates the interaction between fibroblasts and each sub-clone.

With help of the members of Doug’s lab, I was able to build a regression based model for how ligands from the tumour sub-clones could be driving fibroblast reprogramming, using an approach called partial least squares regression modelling. This has allowed me to build a list of the most likely signalling interactions underlying my observed phenotypic effects, which I am now able to begin validating experimentally in the lab back in Manchester.

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

The wealth of expertise in computational and modelling approaches in Professor Lauffenburger’s lab was invaluable. Not only did it give me an understanding of how to build regression-based models, but also how best to use and interpret them, and the power that modelling approaches can hold in interpreting biological data.

Was there anything you particularly liked about the host institution?

Being at MIT, and Cambridge in general, was fantastic. Coming from a dedicated cancer research institute, it was interesting to be surrounded by labs and people working on so many different scientific areas of research, not just biological research but also engineering, physics and mathematics. Cambridge is a very vibrant and collaborative place so it was a great experience to be there.

It was fantastic to be immersed in such a multi-disciplinary environment and have the opportunity to interact with biologists, physicists, engineers and computer scientists.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

It gave me a real insight into how wet lab biology and computational approaches can be combined to give new biological insights, and I am certain that my understanding of systems biology approaches has been greatly enhanced by this experience.

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

It has definitely given me an idea of the kind of research I would like to pursue in the future, and the experience of working in the US has given me the motivation to consider this for the next step of my career.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? 

I would like to thank Professor Lauffenburger for giving me the fantastic opportunity to spend some time in his lab and for his help during my visit, as well a huge thanks to all the members of his lab for their help and advice and making me feel so welcome!

Finally I would also like to thank the EACR for their financial support and making such an enjoyable and inspiring trip possible!