“Keep pushing our research forward” – Jonas Van Audenaerde, EACR Travel Fellow

Read the report from Jonas Van Audenaerde on his visit to the Tuveson Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab, USA.

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.

Jonas Van Audenaerde
Jonas Van Audenaerde in the lab

Name: Jonas Van Audenaerde, PhD student
Home Institution: University of Antwerp, Belgium
Host Institution: Tuveson Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab, USA
Dates of visit: 25 September – 09 October 2018

Research: Pancreatic cancer is still one of the most lethal cancers worldwide with a very high grade of resistance to virtually every known therapy. In my PhD project, we aim to attack this cancer with a unique combination immunotherapy. With this approach, we help patients’ defence system to fight the cancer. The unique property in my project is that we simultaneously boost the immune system and take away the immunosuppressive break the cancer has on this system. This way, we are maximising the effect of the treatment and fight this cancer at several fronts at the same time.

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

As a PhD student, I wanted to perform an internship abroad to learn some new relevant techniques for my PhD studies. However, an internship to the USA doesn’t come cheap so I started to look for travel fellowships to finance my research stay abroad. The EACR Travel Fellowship was the most suitable I came across because it is specifically designed for PhD students and has very clear outlines and regulations. Also, the outcome of the application is very swift in comparison to other funding agencies, which makes it an even more attractive option for travel funding.

Why did you choose the host lab?

The Tuveson Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab, part of Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, is internationally renowned for its outstanding work with tumour organoids. They were among the very first to start culturing cancer cells in 3D instead of 2D. This major change in the paradigm of cell culture led to multiple high impact scientific discoveries, allowing a better understanding of the complexity of pancreatic cancer. Since I wanted to learn these techniques on three-dimensional cell culture, I thought I might as well learn it from the best so that’s why I chose the pancreatic cancer research lab of Prof. David Tuveson.

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

Jonas Van Audenaerde in the lab
Jonas Van Audenaerde in the lab

During my internship at the Tuveson Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab, I mainly learned two new techniques. First, I learned how to set up organoid cell cultures. These are three-dimensional cell cultures of human or mouse pancreatic tumour tissue. The 3D in vitro cell cultures represent the latest state-of-the-art model for studying cancer in vitro. They allow a more specific and accurate analysis of the growth pattern, receptor expression and therapeutic response of pancreatic cancer and other cancer types. Secondly, I learned how to perform high-resolution ultrasound imaging of mice bearing spontaneous or orthotopically induced pancreatic tumours. This imaging allows a more accurate follow-up of in vivo tumour growth and response to (new) therapeutic regimens.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

At the end of my internship, the whole group participated in a charity walk dedicated to pancreatic cancer research from the Lustgarten Foundation. Here, we had an information booth where all the research performed in the lab was explained carefully in layman terms to make all the, sometimes complicated, research comprehensible to the general public. I found it striking how many people were so interested in the ongoing scientific research on pancreatic cancer. Also, their dedication in support or honour of a family member or friend who (had) suffered from pancreatic cancer was really moving. In the end, we also did the walk together with more than 1000 people to support and raise money purely dedicated for pancreatic cancer research. Participating in the event really showed me the importance of explaining our work to a broad audience and motivated me to keep pushing our research forward.

Jonas Van Audenaerde Group Picture

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

she was the best possible teacher

My personal mentor at the Tuveson Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab, was Dr. Lindsey Baker, a post-doc scientist with an incredible amount of knowledge and experience in pancreatic cancer organoids. Since she was involved in this project from the beginning, she was the best possible teacher for teaching me everything I have learned on this topic. As a person who takes teaching very seriously, she carefully instructed me on all the finer details that are important in the lab. Moreover, she organised my whole schedule to make sure that I got every topic on this matter covered and hereby introduced me to a lot of new scientists also working in the field. It goes without saying that I am very grateful for all of the things she taught me!

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

This internship has provided me with both skills and knowledge to implement the organoid techniques in our laboratory in Antwerp, Belgium. Since the lab I’m working in – the Center for Oncological Research – focuses on multiple cancers, this technology provides us with an opportunity to study on several cancer types in a more relevant model. This might provide all of us with new insights for better cancer treatments in multiple cancer types.

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

This internship definitely has been beneficial for my future research career. First of all, it gave me the opportunity to expand and specialise my technical skills in the lab and in imaging of animals. These skills will undoubtedly come in handy during the rest of my PhD studies and also afterwards. Secondly, this visit enabled me to get to know a lot of new friendly, brilliant scientist who all share the same passion in life: to make steps forward in the struggle against pancreatic cancer. These new contacts and friendships will enable collaborations between our labs, facilitating the exchange of results and thus, possibly accelerating the search for a cure for this horrible disease.