Elizabeth Appleton is a clinical PhD student at the Institute of Cancer Research, UK who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Mayo Clinic Rochester, US between September and December 2023. She was joined by her family for the duration of her stay, for a truly “home away from home” experience!

The EACR is supported by Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,500 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 Fellows and their experiences here.

Name: Elizabeth Appleton
Job title: Clinical PhD Student
Home institute: Institute of Cancer Research, UK
Host institute: Mayo Clinic Rochester, US
Dates of visit: 01 September – 04 December 2023
Research:I am a medical oncology doctor with an interest in cancer immunotherapy. During my PhD, I have been studying how key, cancer-fighting cells called T-cells behave within a tumour, to find out how we can improve their function and design more effective cancer therapies.

How did you choose the host lab?

Global collaboration and learning from the breadth of experience worldwide is key in cancer research, and has never been more important. I applied for an EACR Travel Fellowship to provide funding to help me travel to Rochester, Minnesota to further develop a collaboration between our laboratory in London and Dr Richard Vile at the Mayo Clinic, USA.

Dr Richard Vile and his team are working to develop new Car-Tcell therapies. T-cells are important cells that drive the anti-tumour immune response when we treat cancer patients with an immunotherapy. Car-Tcells are T-cells that are modified/engineered to help them recognise and kill the cancer more effectively. This type of therapy has been very effective in blood cancers but not in solid tumours, and more research is needed to drive progress. As I have been studying how to make T-cells more effective in cancer therapy during my PhD, I was keen to gain experience of Car-Tcell engineering, and learn about new strategies to make them more effective. The Vile lab are working to deliver Car-Tcells in combination with cancer-fighting viruses, to boost the immune response against the tumour.

The Mayo Clinic is a world leader in research into modified T-cell therapy, leading some of the biggest trials in the field, with a cell therapy program that is working to reduce costs and improve access for patients. So this presented a great opportunity to gain some experience in this setting, to bring back to my work in the UK.

Can you summarise the research you did?

One of the purposes of my visit was to establish a new in vivo technology at the Mayo Clinic – Tocky mice (Tocky = Japanese for “Time”). Tocky mice were developed by one of my PhD supervisors at Imperial College (Dr Masahiro Ono), to help us understand more about how T-cells function. Tocky mice are modified to have T-cells that fluoresce when they are activated, and this fluorescence changes colour over time. This colour change helps us study the activation timeline of each T-cell in detail, to try and delve deeper into what drives an effective T-cell response. We shipped a set of mice a few months prior to my arrival so a colony could be established. I then started to work with them when I arrived, to share the analysis techniques I have learnt during my PhD working with this technology, to translate this work into Car-T research. During my visit, we managed to establish the technology and run several in vitro and in vivo experiments which have provided us with data to kick-start this collaboration and we are currently preparing this for publication. As well as sharing techniques, I learnt a lot about T-cell engineering, cloning and single-cell RNAsequencing during my visit, which will be valuable as I progress to the next stage of my career.

Elizabeth and friends during her visit

Describe a typical day on your visit.

In a typical day I would get up, walk to work which was about a 10 minute walk away – a welcome change from my London commute! My days mostly consisted of tissue culture and in vitro work, as well as preparation for in vivo studies. I worked closely with two other PhD students – Olivia and Luke, as the project I was working on was closely linked to their work. There was a brilliant animal technician called Jill, who helped me a lot with in vivo studies, and is a major reason why the trip was as productive as it was. There was also a great genomics/flow cytometry facility at Mayo, which helped us get good outputs. After work, I would head back home. We travelled out to the USA with our 3 children, so I would hear about their day in “American school” and we often went swimming, to the park, or out for ice cream!

Was the host institution very different from your own?

The Mayo Clinic is a very impressive place, and the combination of Rochester/Mayo is like nowhere in the UK as Rochester itself is very small, so to have such a large healthcare institution is unusual. One of the main differences was therefore the convenience, it was so easy to get to and from work, and around the city. The facilities and infrastructure for research were incredible, and I was really struck by the amount of investment in both the institute itself, and in the city due to the impact of Mayo on the local economy. I was able to observe some oncology clinics while I was there, and as a doctor in the NHS in the UK it was valuable to have the opportunity to gain experience within such a contrasting healthcare system.

Does your lab plan to do any future collaboration with the host lab?

This was hopefully the beginning of a new long-term and productive collaboration. In addition to Richard, who I am now lucky to have as a mentor, I was able to meet the next generation of cancer researchers through Luke and Olivia. I hope that we will be able to continue our trans-Atlantic collaborations moving forward!

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

Richard Vile is highly influential in the field, a brilliant scientist, and an all-round excellent person! He is experienced in taking experimental treatments through to clinical trials, and as there were already productive links between Dr Vile and the Institute of Cancer Research, this was an ideal opportunity to build on this collaboration and take it in a new direction. I had a great time working with Richard and his team, he is so passionate about science, and really driven to make a difference for patients which was inspirational. He is also a great leader, and I will definitely try and take this forward when I hopefully lead my own team in the future. This project is ongoing following a strong start, largely thanks to the funding I gained from EACR enabling me to travel there to kick start this in person, and I am sure Richard will continue to be a supportive mentor, as well as a collaborator and friend.

Elizabeth brought her family with her on her trip

Did you take part in any interesting local activities?

Between work and the children I feel like we were well immersed in Rochester life! We had great neighbours, and some friends from school, so we tried to get out and experience Minnesotan culture with them. We were in Rochester from the end of summer, through to winter, so had the full “fall” experience. We went on trips to apple orchards, went pumpkin picking, and travelled to the North shore of Lake Superior where we saw spectacular Autumn colours. We were in Rochester for Halloween which is really big in the US, and the kids loved dressing up and wandering round to see all the decorations (while gathering bucketloads of candy). We were invited to our neighbours for thanksgiving, so had the full experience of around 30 dishes (8 different pies alone!). There was also a good local theatre, so we took the older children to see Matilda which they loved.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

There were so many highlights. Scientifically, we managed to carry out a single cell RNA sequencing experiment, sorting different CarT cell populations from out experimental combinations. This has given us a lot of data, which combined with our work with the Tocky mice while at Mayo has provided the bones of a publication. It has also driven hypotheses and provided preliminary data for further projects which is brilliant. Personally, I loved being able to give my family the experience of life in a different culture. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, the kids loved their school and our life in Rochester, and they made friends and have had an experience which I hope they will look back fondly on as they grow up.

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.