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.
Name: Lorena Martin Morales
Job title: PhD student
Home institute and country: Molecular Oncology Laboratory, Hospital Clinico San Carlos, Spain
Host institute and country: Department of Genetics, Case Western Reserve University, United States of America
Dates of visit: 11 March – 3 June 2019
Research: I study a group of families that show a strong family history of colorectal cancer and other associated tumors. However, they don’t have mutations in any of the currently known predisposition genes. These families have a higher risk of developing cancers in these locations than the general population, but the genetic basis responsible for this condition is still unknown. My research focus is to identify other mutations in new genes that could explain the increased risk of cancer in these unexplained families.
Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?
I had a great time and have made friends for life
I decided to apply for a Travel Fellowship because I’m eager to learn new techniques, discover what it is like in a different workplace and step outside of my comfort zone. In addition, I work in a clinical laboratory which is mainly focussed on genetics, but to demonstrate the causality of the mutations, some of the techniques needed are not available in my home lab. For this reason, I believed that visiting another cancer research lab was perfect for my research.
Can you summarise the research you did or what you learned on your visit?
The aim of my stay was to study a PTPRT mutation identified in a family with unexplained hereditary colorectal cancer. During this visit, I was able to check the methylation status of PTPRT‘s promoter from tumor and healthy tissue pairs by pyrosequencing. This showed that the tumors from 2 mutation carriers were hypermethylated compared to the corresponding healthy tissue, which could be a second mechanism of somatic inactivation of this tumor suppression gene.
Furthermore, I cloned a mutated version of PTPRT with the exact same mutation identified in our family. I generated recombinant adenoviruses and expressed wild type and mutant PTPRT by viral transduction of a colon cancer cell line, in order to test the effects of the mutation. However, I found this to be a time-consuming process and the cell lines were only ready to use by the end of my stay. Meanwhile, I successfully expressed the wild type and mutant PTPRT in colon cancer cells using chemical transient transfection and performed a colon formation assay. Despite no differences being observed, I plan to repeat this assay using the adenoviral-transduced cell lines, together with other experiments. In addition, I learnt how to generate colon organoids from genetically modified mice.
Did you take part in any interesting local/cultural activities?
I have met some inspiring people both inside and outside of the lab
I took part in lots of cultural activities and other events organised by the university. For example, I attended the Holi Festival of Colors, Springfest, and the Genetics Department Retreat. I also enjoyed many local activities such as Cleveland’s array of museums, the Thyagaraja Festival of Indian classical music, Tropical Cleveland’s salsa nights, Pride. I even saw The Who in concert at a nearby city. Personally, these events were the cherry on top of an amazing visit.
What was a personal highlight of your trip?
A personal highlight of my trip was the Genetics Department Retreat because I had never experienced something like it before. It was a two-day event at an out-of-town resort. It was a great opportunity to socialize with colleagues from the host lab and to meet other department members. Additionally, there were a number of group activities focused on promoting problem-solving and team-working in a molecular biology research context. It was particularly stimulating to mingle with the different members that are part of a lab environment. The group ranged from principal investigators to senior researchers to technicians to graduate students.
How has the trip inspired you in your research?
During this trip, I have met some inspiring people both inside and outside of the lab. People who believed in me and who have reminded me why we researchers do what we do. I am grateful to those who helped me find the path I want to follow in cancer research and encouraged me to pursue my goals. Thanks to this, one of the highlights of this trip has been living in a housing co-operative in which I have cohabited with different post-graduate students from around the globe. It has certainly been an enriching experience culturally and intellectually. I had a great time and have made friends for life. I met some exceptional colleagues in the host lab, who were willing to share their research experiences with me. Similarly, it was very exciting to be able to see how things work in such a renowned university with outstanding biomedical research.
Does your lab plan to do any future collaboration or publication with the host lab?
Thankfully, the collaboration that started thanks to this fellowship is still ongoing. Another student at Case Western Reserve is continuing the project I started in the host lab, and I am regularly in contact with them. Meanwhile in my home lab, we are planning to perform additional assays using DNA/RNA samples from the mutation carriers that would strengthen our hypothesis and the results obtained in the host lab. Moreover, we plan to collaborate in at least one or two publications.
How has this visit been beneficial to your research and/or your career?
Firstly, I benefitted because I was able to have access to techniques that are not available in my home lab. My group and I plan to take advantage of the new methods I learnt on my visit. These methods include pyrosequencing, cloning, adenoviral transduction and organoid generation. Visiting such an outstanding lab will be extremely beneficial for my future career. Hopefully it has made me a more desirable candidate for postdoctoral positions in the near future.