Mattia Colucci is a PhD student at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Italy who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the BC Cancer Research Centre, Vancouver, Canada between July and December 2023.

The EACR, with support from Worldwide Cancer Research, provides 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: Mattia Colucci
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Italy
Host institute: BC Cancer Research Centre, Vancouver, Canada
Dates of visit: July – December 2023
Research: I focused on issues related to T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), cancer and stem cell biology as well as high-throughput CRISPR/Cas9 technology. As a PhD student, the main objective of my project is to determine whether the loss of epigenetic Enhancer of Zeste 2 (EZH2) promotes the malignant transformation of the hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) and/or the maintenance of human T cell leukemia.

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

I aimed to better understand the mechanisms related to leukemia stem cell progression, particularly how the loss of EZH2 activity influences the oncogenic effects of driver mutations in T-ALL. Dr.Weng’s lab is part of the Terry Fox Laboratory, which is world-renowned for its expertise and long history of productivity in the areas of hematopoietic stem cell biology and leukemogenesis. As a PhD student and young EACR member, the EACR Travel Fellowship allowed me to move to Vancouver and take advantage of the BC Cancer Research Centre (BCCRC) environment and Dr. Weng’s expertise in T-cell leukemia.

Can you summarise the research you did?

During the planned site visit at BCCRC, I explored how the loss of EZH2 promotes the malignant transformation of the hematopoietic stem/progenitors (HSPCs) from human cord blood (CB) and/or the maintenance of human T cell leukemias. Specifically, I learned how the synthetic human T-ALLs are generated by Dr. Weng’s group and subsequently cultured leukemic cells in vitro for long-term proliferation and clonal selection. I also received additional training to assess the immunophenotypes of T cell stem/progenitor cells by multiparameter flow cytometry using the BD FACS Symphony Spectral flow cytometer system (BD Biosciences). Indeed, I measured up to 32 different cell parameters at the same time in my cell systems using already standardized panels containing fluorophore-conjugated antibodies against markers expressed in normal T-cell development.

“I am confident that this period set up the right and strong basis for the next steps of my scientific career”

Describe a ‘typical day’ on your visit.

A typical day during my stay in Vancouver started around 8am, taking the Skytrain and bus towards the BCCRC. I spent the workday focused on my research project. Lunch breaks and daily meetings were crucial for building professional relationships with all staff of Dr. Weng’s group. In the afternoon, I often continued with my lab work or data analysis. Finally, I ended my day by planning my activities for the next day.

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

I had the unique opportunity to use the BD FACS Symphony Spectral flow cytometer system (BD Biosciences) located at the flow cytometry core facility at the BCCRC. This highly efficient cell analyser is indeed not available in my home lab in Italy. Additionally, I engaged in discussions with the core flow staff and specialists about challenges and future strategies in flow cytometry analysis, especially applied to cancer research.

Mattie enjoying the sights of Vancouver

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

Yes, definitely! During my stay I had the opportunity to explore the city, immersing myself in both its vibrant art scene, highlighted by visits to the Art Gallery, the Aquarium, and Science World, and its more traditional and popular culture. Additionally, I appreciated a variety of international cuisines, and multicultural interactions that Vancouver offers. Moreover, I enjoyed the panoramic view of Stanley Park, English Bay, and Kitsilano Beach!

Was the host institute very different from your own?

One of the most striking differences was its extensive core facilities, which were significantly larger and more advanced than those available at my home lab. Additionally, the presence of renowned scientists, postdoctoral researchers, and outstanding students offered a unique learning opportunity. I also attended weekly seminars, workshops, and lab meetings, which I found particularly advantageous. The diversity of topics and the quality of speakers were excellent, contributing significantly to raising new biological questions related to cancer biology.

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

I worked with highly performant cell analysers not available in my home lab in Italy. Indeed, through this experience, I optimised multiparameter flow cytometric analyses, which can be easily adapted and performed in my lab of origin to corroborate the strength of my results as well as foster other research projects related to cancer biology. Additionally, I brought back detailed protocols, analytical methodologies, and training materials to transfer this knowledge to other researchers and trainees in Italy. Furthermore, I acquired new bioinformatics skills for multi-omic data analysis to interpret complex datasets more efficiently.

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

My experience as a visiting PhD student at the BC Cancer Research Centre has been immensely enriching. I have gained knowledge and skills that have significantly contributed to my professional growth. Indeed, I would like to continue investigating biological questions related to hematopoietic system and leukemia in a highly professional environment as an independent scientist in the field of cancer biology. This will be very challenging, but at the same time, give me strong motivation and enthusiasm for the future.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I am extremely honoured to receive the EACR Travel Fellowship and thankful to the EACR for supporting my research experience at BCCRC in Canada. I would also like to express my gratitude to my host supervisor Dr. Andrew Weng, and his incredible team for all guidance and useful scientific discussions. I am confident that this period set up the right and strong basis for the next steps of my scientific career.

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.