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.

PhD Student Joana Dias Apolónio

Home institution and country: Centre for Biomedical Research (CBMR), Department of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine, University of Algarve, Portugal
Host institution and country: Genetics and Genome Biology Department, Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumor Research Centre, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON, Canada
Dates of visit: 20 January 2018 – 30 March 2018

In my research project I’m mainly focused on evaluating the mechanisms that allow tumour cells to grow and form cancers. Specifically, the gene hTERT is one of the famous genes that is activated during the process of carcinogenesis, being associated with a poor disease prognosis. Based on this, I’m trying to revert the mechanisms that contribute for hTERT activation in cancer in order to suppress tumour growth. This may have several important clinical applications since it could eventually be used as a diagnostic tool and a therapeutic target for several cancer types.

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

I’m an EACR member and so I received some emails regarding EACR updates and grant opportunities. Also, based on information available on the EACR website I decided to take a look on the criteria that an EACR applicant should have. Therefore, since I was planning to go abroad for a while in my research project and I was eligible to apply, I decided to do it. Also, I have a colleague that applied once and she also encouraged me to do it.

Why did you choose the host lab?

The reason why I chose the host lab is related to previous work that my supervisor developed in collaboration with Dr. Uri Tabori at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada. We know that the lab has a lot of experience in telomere maintenance mechanisms in cancer and has access for next generation sequencing and advanced research techniques that is not accessible in my home institute.

Dr. Tabori invited me to do a post-doc or a collaboration in other projects that they have, after I finish my PhD.

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

In this research project we plan to characterise the role of THOR in hTERT activation, with a main focus on the development of a targeted demethylation system using CRISPR/Cas9-based constructs to induce cancer suppression. During my stay I did all the cloning strategy using the plasmid vectors, dCas9-TET1 and single-guide RNA (sgRNA) that are currently being used in order to target THOR region and induce their demethylation in different cancer cell lines. I tested different transfection conditions and protocols in order to optimise the effect of the demethylation system. I also decided to introduce the cell sorting approach in order to improve the efficiency of the system and once it started to work, we could apply it in different cancer cell types. Now I’m working on that in Portugal and also another colleague in the host lab is interested in using the same protocol for their own project.

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

In Dr. Tabori’s lab I had access to several techniques, like a very well established Flow cytometry facility, which I used to perform live cell sorting. Also, they have a very well organised animal facility where I was able to learn and develop an in vivo pilot study with their support. Furthermore, I’m interested in analysing DNA methylation patterns in specific regions of hTERT and I had access to all the protocols that they had been using to next generation sequencing (Miseq) and also I gained more autonomy to introduce other protocols regarding the CRISPR technology in this lab.

Joana Apolonio with colleagues in the lab
Did you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you?

Yes. The lab has a nice environment, with other Masters and PhD students, as well as 2 Post-Docs, 2 support technicians and a lab manager. All of them were very helpful and happy to help any technical questions or doubt that I had. In particular, the first time that I undertook cell sorting and the in vivo experiment, one of the technicians was very helpful, and I learned a lot from her.

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

Definitely! This opportunity allowed me to improve both my theoretical and practical knowledge. In particular, cloning techniques and cell sorting were some valuable skills that I brought back to my home lab. Since I’m still working on this project in my home lab, I’m feeling more confident and independent to work on the project. I can also share my experience and help my lab members, who eventually may need to use some of the techniques in their research projects.

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

We are currently finishing some work that we aim to publish together. Furthermore, since we have common research interests, we want to maintain this collaboration in the future and eventually, other students from our lab may be able to have this international experience. Also, Dr. Tabori invited me to do a post-doc or a collaboration in other projects that they have, after I finish my PhD.

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

This visit allowed me to experience another research environment, namely, a bigger research lab and institute, and more important, being part of it. This EACR Travel Fellowship was really determinant for my participation in our current research project, since I was able to have access to all the material/reagents and advanced techniques required for our main purpose goal, which is the development of a targeted demethylation system based on CRISPR/Cas9. I had the opportunity to meet amazing people and professionals who will absolutely be an inspiration for me. Furthermore, in terms of my career, I believe that this experience abroad in a worldwide recognised cancer research centre enriched me both personally and professionally.