Goodbye Flat Biology 2019: A Participant’s View

The 4th EACR Goodbye Flat Biology Conference: Advancing 3D-based Models for Cancer Biology and Drug Discovery | Berlin, Germany | 10-13 November 2019

As usual for EACR Conferences we heard some wonderful feedback from participants at Goodbye Flat Biology, with 99% of feedback survey respondents saying they’d recommend the conference to others. Interested in finding out more? Read the Goodbye Flat Biology 2019 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 includes a free registration and funds of up to €500 to support travel and accommodation costs.

Below are the reports from the Goodbye Flat Biology 2019 Meeting Bursary recipients.

1Jessy van Asperen, PhD Student

Home institution: University Medical Center Utrecht, Netherlands

Every cell in the body contains a miniscule skeleton, called the cytoskeleton. The cytoskeleton gives the cell support, structure and is required for cell movement and interaction with the cellular environment. Intermediate filaments are one of the three components of the cytoskeleton. In patients with glioma, a type of primary brain tumours, the composition of the intermediate filament network is changed. In my research, I try to gain a better understanding about the role of intermediate filaments in glioma malignancy, by mimicking these changes in a dish. Using three-dimensional models, we study how changing intermediate filaments affects the invasive capacities of glioma cells.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

The talks that were given at the conference were of high quality and I learned a lot of new things during these sessions. My personal highlight was the last keynote lecture given by Senthil Muthuswamy. His talk about the use of patient organoids to study sensitivity to cancer treatments was a great example of how research can directly influence a patient’s life.

“I won a poster prize during the conference!”

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

Although all attendees worked in the field of cancer biology, the conference brought people together mainly based on the methods they use rather than on a very specific topic. I enjoyed this because it promotes open discussions about how we answer questions by picking specific 3D models rather than the outcomes of those questions. I noticed this during the poster sessions where people were really thinking along about your research and approaches. This was very inspiring.

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

On one of the free evenings and after the conference, I had time to explore Berlin with some other attendees. It was nice to see the city in autumn colours.

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019How has the conference inspired you in your research?

What really inspired me, was the technology forum that was organized. During this session, we got together in a small group hosted by speaker Viola Vogel to discuss challenges we encounter in studying mechanobiology. The informal setting opened up a good discussion and it was nice to brainstorm about the pros and cons of 3D models to study mechanobiology. This helped me reflect on the models I use myself and gave me ideas for future experiments.

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

I was very happy to share with my colleagues that I won a poster prize during the conference!

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

I learned a lot about biomaterials and benefits and disadvantages of different models. I will directly apply this knowledge in my home laboratory to set up a new 3D model.

In addition, the conference brought together researchers with different research focusses within cancer biology. Therefore, I learned a lot about research areas that are not directly related to my field of work, like immunotherapy and genomic instability. It was interesting to find out about the latest developments in different fields of cancer biology.

2Sara Rocha, PhD student

Home institution: i3S – Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde, Portugal; Ipatimup – Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto, Portugal

Our work focus on understanding the mechanisms behind gastric cancer metastasis, namely on how gastric cancer cells communicate with the surrounding cells and how does that affect the process of metastasis. This is like people using mobile devices and their favourite social networks to send a message. Cancer cells use extracellular vesicles to communicate with other cancer or normal cells. And, as in any war, intercepting and deciphering those messages is crucial to winning the battle. Our goal is to decipher the messages contained in those vesicles and use that information to fight gastric cancer metastasis.

“This was a great opportunity to exchange contacts and set the ground for collaborations”

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

During my academic path, I’ve had the opportunity to attend some excellent conferences on the different subjects that are relevant for my research. However, I always feel that I am missing something due to the multiple interesting talks and posters that occur at the same time. During this conference, there was enough time to attend all of the posters I was interested in. Moreover, no parallel sessions meant the participants could attend all the lectures without having to choose from multiple events. I believe the limited number of participants provided a very welcoming environment for networking. Not only with other participants, but also with the excellent speakers of the conference.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

I have been working with 3D models for the last few years. I still struggle with the definition of what is a (good) 3D model. The debate on smart 2D vs 3D models was very important for me to understand that having a 3D system may not always be the best solution, especially if it is not well designed. This debate showed me that a poorly designed 3D system may be worse that a 2D one. It also highlighted that some biological questions may be better answered with a 2D study. At the same time, this debate and all the brilliant talks of the conference strengthened my passion for 3D models, by demonstrating that well-designed 3D systems are very powerful tools to understand physiology and disease, allowing the reduction of the animal use in research and improving the chances of success in the clinic.

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019
Sara in her home laboratory

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

The conference proved to be a pleasant surprise regarding networking and potential collaborations. During the poster session, I had the chance to present the 3D model that we had developed to study extracellular vesicles in 3D. There were many participants interested in applying our model to their research. This was a great opportunity to exchange contacts and set the ground for collaborations that I hope to consolidate in the near future. The fruitful discussions and new ideas that came up at the poster session are already impacting my research.

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

It was very difficult to choose were to start when I was telling my colleagues about the conference. From all the brilliant talks, I was completely amazed by the lectures from Dr. Hugo Snippert and Dr. Mikala Egebald. For me, the work of Dr. Snippert on following mitotic errors on patient derived organoids was something completely new and it was definitely one of the first things that I could not wait to tell my supervisor. On the other hand, the research of Dr. Egebald is very close to what I am currently studying, and I was astonished with the outstanding data from her lab. Having the opportunity to discuss some aspects of her work at the technologies forum was definitely one of the highlights of the conference for me.

3Tariq Haddad, PhD student

Home institution: Radboud UMC, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

My project focuses on tumor buds. These are small clusters of up to 4 tumor cells which are detached from the main tumor. My role is to explore these tumor buds in colorectal cancer and learn more about what they are, understand their environment and how they fit into the different types of colorectal cancer. Tumor buds are important because they can help doctors better diagnose colorectal cancer in order to improve treatments. However, they are not routinely used in diagnostics. My work can help increase our knowledge of tumor buds in order to promote their use in clinics worldwide.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

I would say a personal highlight for me was having the opportunity to be surrounded by and speak with some of the top people in the 3D cancer biology field. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. Being able to discuss and share ideas with them was a fantastic opportunity. Seeing how dedicated they are to their work and the influence their work has on improving cancer research and treatment is very inspiring. This has reinforced my drive to work hard and have an impact of my own as well. It was also an honor to be able to present my work in front of such a knowledgeable and insightful audience. I received great feedback as well as new ideas worth pursuing in the future. This is something I am very grateful for.

“Having the opportunity to give a talk was such an amazing experience for me at this stage in my scientific career”

How was this congress different from others you have attended?

This congress is different from the others I’ve attended because not only was the research being presented of very high quality. I also had a sense of community with the other attendees and was able to have very enriching conversations with them. It was great that the different sessions weren’t held simultaneously. This meant no one had to decide which talks to attend. Having the chance to attend all of the lectures and have discussions with the rest of the attendees on those topics makes a difference on how you’re able to digest the science. It also helps to find inspiration for your own work. With a focus on effectively sharing ideas and discussing science to enrich the field of three-dimensional cancer biology, this congress did an incredible job.

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019
This is me presenting my Proffered Paper

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

I had opportunities to discuss and receive input from others. As well as this, I spoke to some of the speakers. This has opened up new ideas and approaches that I am considering incorporating into my research. After meeting and talking to some of the attendees, there is great potential for collaboration which I am very excited about. Some of the speakers and industry sponsors highlighted techniques and technology I found very interesting. I am considering adopting and incorporating some into my research.

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

I was quite busy during my trip. However, in my free time I was able to explore the city with other attendees to get a sense for the city of Berlin and experience the food as well as the culture. Prior to my departure, we were able to visit some of the historical landmarks as well as the Berlin Wall. I think Berlin is a great city which I would love to visit again.

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

Attending the conference and having the opportunity to give a talk was such an amazing experience for me at this stage in my scientific career. When I returned, I was very excited to share with them the overall experience and the connections I had made along the way. I spoke about my conversations with other attendees as well as what I had learned and taken away. I didn’t want to limit the knowledge gained to only influence my own work but also that of my colleagues. Therefore, I took advantage of the opportunity to share my insights and ideas which was very rewarding.

4Kendelle Murphy, PhD student

Home institution: Cancer Invasion and Metastasis Lab, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, Australia

In the field of pancreatic cancer, a huge setback in the clinic response to standard-of-care chemotherapy is the uniqueness of each individuals’ tumours. In our lab we take samples of patients’ tumours and put them into a mini pancreas system. When combined with advanced microscopy techniques, this allows us to test a variety of drugs and determine personalised drug response in a rapid manner. We can then make informed decisions on which patients would response to which treatment and the best treatment regime to combat their cancer.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

Personally, the highlight of the conference was simply listening to so many informative and inspirational talks. I’m always interested to learn about new techniques and also how we can use old techniques in new ways to answer any biological question which arises. Often, I find that only a subset of talks are relevant to my research. However I thoroughly enjoyed every talk at the conference, as well as discussing them with fellow students and speakers afterwards.

“This conference has re-inspired me to work harder than ever in my work”

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

Unlike other conferences I have attended, I found that there was no divide between invited speakers and students. Often, I find there is segregation between the two but this was not the case. As a student we often worry about asking “dumb” questions for fear of being judged. Speaking to other students at the conference we were all welcomed by the speakers to ask any questions we wanted and also to talk about careers in science, potential collaborations and any problems we’ve encountered in our research.

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

I live in Australia. This means that attending conferences overseas allows us to experience a culture completely different to ours. I personally combined a small amount of travel prior to attending Goodbye Flat Biology. I find that this opportunity always enriches my knowledge of the world. However, it also gives me an idea of whether I would like to live and work in a specific city or country in the future. Knowing the quality of laboratories in the area surrounding the conference always encourages me to take a few days to discover a new city and potential future workplace.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019

This conference has re-inspired me to work harder than ever in my work. As I write up my thesis, I often find myself lacking in motivation sat at a desk all day and not being in the laboratory. Goodbye Flat Biology has given me the final bit of motivation I needed to finish my thesis and to get back into the laboratory. It has motivated me to start discovering new and novel 3D technologies to drive drug discovery and uncover new mechanisms. I’m looking forward to introducing my laboratory team to some of the wonderful techniques I learned about during the conference.

Lastly, I would like to thank the organisers, speakers and other attendees for making this conference one of the most enjoyable, knowledge rich and educating conferences that I have been to. At the end of each day I was excited to hear what the next would bring. I am looking forward to attending future meetings. The conference was fantastic and since I have decided to become an ambassador for the EACR. I truly believe that my Australian colleagues would benefit richly from attending future meeting and becoming part of the community.

5Konstantina Nikolatou, PhD student

Home institution: The University of Glasgow, UK

During metastasis cancer cells spread from the primary tumour to other parts of the body. This requires cancer cells to become invasive, i.e. able to penetrate and move through the supporting stroma. I study how ovarian cancer metastasizes. I use ovarian cells that have had their DNA altered (mutated) in a way that mimics the changes observed in ovarian cancer patients. Those cells are grown in conditions that mimic the tumour environment, allowing them to form mini-tumours. By imaging these mini-tumours over several days I observe changes in their size and shape that will be indicative of an invasive behaviour. My overall goal is to reverse this behaviour with the use of several drugs.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the whole conference”

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

I enjoyed the social aspect of the conference, particularly the conference dinner. I am someone who has only studied and performed research in the UK. Therefore, I found it particularly interesting chatting to early career scientists based in the US, Australia or continental Europe and comparing research culture and career prospects.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole conference. My highlight was the two poster sessions because of the amazing science and the positive and encouraging atmosphere among delegates. I enjoyed not only talking to other people about my research, but also listening to other people about their own science and the techniques they use. I visited several posters of people who were also using 3D techniques to investigate ovarian cancer. We had the chance to discuss our experience and exchange ideas.

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019
Konstantina in the lab

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

Most of my colleagues also attended the conference. We made sure we spent a few hours during the final afternoon visiting the centre of Berlin. Together with two more researchers we met at the conference we visited the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate and the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. We also met with a former lab-mate who now lives in Berlin. She took us on a short tour of the city.

How has the conference inspired you in your research?

I think that the best bit of inspiration came from the debate on “Smart 2D will be the new 3D”. I do think that 3D biology is here to stay. However, after the debate I do appreciate that not all forms of 3D assay can answer the same questions. Hence, you need to be able to identify what will work the best for your system and what will answer your questions the most efficient way. It may be the case that sometimes a well thought out, carefully designed experiment in 2D may give you more meaningful information than a poorly executed or non-suitable type of 3D assay.

6Valentina Carannante, PhD student

Home institution: Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally. According to World Health Organization report, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco and alcohol use are the five leading risks. Interesting, all the previous factors can shape the immune system. The immune system is composed by sentinel cells that patrol our body, eliminating pathogens and malignant. However, tumour cells plan astute strategies to escape immune responses. In this scenario, malignant cells create a self-protective fortress, referred to as “tumour microenvironment”, that promotes their growth. In order to understand this process, we build up, brick by brick, the tumour environment in vitro to test therapies that increases immune cell responses.

What was a personal highlight of the conference for you?

My personal highlight of the conference was the opening Keynote Lecture form Dave Mooney, “Cells and viscoelasticity”. The lecture exposed me to completely new concepts and opened my mind towards new field of my research. I was amazed not only by the novelty of the contents, but even more by how concise and clear new difficult concepts were exposed. The all the audience had therefore the opportunity to understand them, no matter how much they knew about the field.

“We should all go together to the next one!”

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

All the poster sections were very engaging, which I really appreciated. I had the opportunity to discuss projects similar to what I am currently working on. But it was even more fun to see so many other topics covered by similar techniques. It broadened my knowledge and curiosity too.

How was this conference different from others you have attended?

Goodbye Flat Biology 2019 has been the most interactive conference I have attended so far. I saw there the perfect match of scientific curiosity, discussion and friendly environment.  That surroundings made it easy to interact with each other. It was the perfect networking place.

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

“We should all go together to the next one!”. Unfortunately, I was the only one form our laboratory attending the conference this time. However, I am sure more of us will participate next year. Our lab is a very exciting environment in which biologists, engineers, physicists and medical doctors work together to solve different kind of problems. I am sure each one of them would find such a conference a perfect place to share ideas and discuss new ones.