Ester Blanco Palmeiro is a PhD student at Navarrabiomed and CIMA at the University of Navarra, Spain who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work in the Research Department of Haematology at the Cancer Institute, University College London in the UK between January and April 2023.

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 Fellows and their experiences here.

Ester Blanco Palmeiro in the host lab

Name: Ester Blanco Palmeiro
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Navarrabiomed and CIMA at the University of Navarra, Spain
Host institute: Cancer Institute, University College London, UK
Dates of visit: 16 January – 16 April 2023
Other funding sources: EMBO short-term fellowship
Research: Immunotherapy has shown remarkable clinical outcomes in the treatment of solid tumours but are not efficient in all patients. The use of our own immune system to specifically kill tumour cells has become a promising approach in the fight against cancer. Concretely, my current research project focuses on define the phenotype and proteome of tumour associated myeloid cells (TAMCs) and identify molecular signatures associated to cancer-promoting myeloid cells. Moreover, the main goal of my research is to discover novel immunomodulatory compounds to enhance cancer immunotherapies.

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

I applied in order to learn new strategies for the treatment of solid tumours. In addition, I have been an EACR member since the beginning of my PhD and I have always thought the EACR is supportive of young researchers.

Why did you choose this host lab?

The laboratory of Prof. Clare Bennett is specialised in the understanding of DC biology to improve immunotherapeutic treatments across cancers. The lab also shares a common research interest of studying CAR therapy in solid tumours. Moreover, the Cancer Institute in University college London (UCL) is a world-leading immunotherapy centre in which I could gain experience and develop networks for my future scientific career.

Can you summarise the research you did?

The aim of the visit was to learn novel cutting-edge CAR strategies for the treatment of solid tumours. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy has revolutionised cancer treatment. Indeed, CAR-T cell therapies have demonstrated efficacy for the treatment of hematopoietic diseases. Nevertheless, many challenges limit the clinical application of CAR-T cell therapies, specifically for solid tumours, mainly because of the activity of tumour antigen-reactive T cells is frequently limited by the suppressive tumour microenvironment (TME).

One way to overcome these challenges is to engage the endogenous immune response. Therefore, we hypothesised that armoured T cells engineered to secrete cytokines or growth factors can overcome immune responses by expanding intratumoural DC that activate endogenous T cell activity, in order to improve upon current CAR-T therapy in the clearance of solid tumours. During my stay at UCL Cancer institute, we performed preliminary experiments to check the efficiency of several CAR-T cell designs in vitro.

Furthermore, I also had the opportunity to characterise the tumour immune microenvironment (TIME) in solid tumours, with specific focus on the DC and myeloid subsets using tissue cytometry. The next stage of the project will consist of validate in preclinical models the anti-tumour potential of our CAR-T cells.

“I found my experience extremely beneficial on both a personal and scientific level”

Describe a typical day on your placement.

After my morning coffee and catching the bus to the lab, I proceeded to an experiment already planned. Then, I discussed results and new plans with my mentor and colleagues. I also took part in lab meetings, and journal clubs.

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

Whilst living in London, I met people from several countries and shared with them the experience of getting to know London and its surrounding areas such as Oxford, Brighton, Canterbury and Dover.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

My goal for this experience was to learn specific CAR therapy approach for the treatment of solid tumours. Surprisingly, I found my experience extremely beneficial on both a personal and scientific level. I was fortunate enough to attend the Spatial Biology and Imaging Symposium where I learned from great UK researchers. I felt privileged to have met such wonderful people in Bennett’s Lab. Definitely, this opportunity made me realise that I would like to carry on with my cancer research.

Was the host institute very different from your own?

Astonishingly, the host institute was incredibly different from my home institute. The UCL Cancer Institute is a centre of excellence and world-leading cancer research institute encompassing numerous internationally acclaimed labs. I learned new knowledge from broader training during Bennett lab meetings and institute internal and external seminars.

Ester with her colleagues at the host lab

Have you brought back any specific knowledge or technique that has benefitted your home lab?

At UCL, I learnt how to successfully engineer T cells. In my home lab, we have a project in the lab seeking to enhance CAR-T cell therapy for solid tumours. Moreover, I also have gained more confidence in myeloid cell biology and how to characterise them. In this stay I have greatly improved my knowledge of immunology. Now, I am already teaching my colleagues the skills I acquired.

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

During my stay, I have actively participated in CAR-T cell project, so I will get involved in the future publication. I am so excited about this collaboration!

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

Most of the time I worked with Sara who is a smart PhD student and taught me to work with CAR-T cells. Moreover, all the members in the lab contribute to me enjoying my stay. Finally, I was grateful to my mentor, Prof. Clare Bennett, she helped and supported me during the development of the project.

How has your trip inspired you in your research?

During this trip, I had a great opportunity to realise my personal and professional potential. Indeed, this trip has helped me to decide about my next step in my research. Living this international experience has opened my mind and I have learned new strategies for the treatment of solid tumours. In addition, I was enriched with the feedback that Bennett’s lab gave me for my research project.

I would like to thank the EACR for generously supporting my training as a researcher and for making this great experience possible.

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.