Petra Jagušt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ireland who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Spain in November 2023.

The EACR is supported by Worldwide Cancer Research to provide 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: Petra Jagušt
Job title: Postdoctoral Researcher
Home institute: RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ireland
Host institute: Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Spain
Dates of visit: 05 November – 26 November 2023
Other funding organisations: Irish Cancer Society
Research: Metastatic breast cancer that spreads to the brain represents a significant clinical challenge. My current research focuses on identifying novel therapeutic targets for breast cancer brain metastasis. Using patient data and pre-clinical cancer models, my research goal is to understand how cancer cells that spread from the breast to the brain change and adapt to be able to survive in the brain microenvironment. Identifying unique breast cancer brain metastatic cells vulnerabilities could improve therapeutic choices and clinical outcomes for brain metastatic breast cancer patients.

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

While visiting international labs provides a great opportunity for learning, career growth, and networking, it also represents a significant financial burden for every early-career researcher. The EACR, through its Travel Grant programme, offers financial assistance in covering travel and accommodation expenses for aspiring researchers during their international lab visits. The EACR Travel Fellowship enabled me to foster new collaborations, learn new skills, and perform cutting-edge research in the worldwide renowned lab for brain metastasis research without being concerned about the financial burden of traveling and living abroad.

Petra and her lab mates in the host lab

Why did you choose the host lab?

My research interests are focused on the discovery of novel biomarkers and treatment strategies for high-mortality-rate brain cancers that will improve patients’ outcomes and quality of life. Dr Manuel Valiente’s Brain Metastasis Group at CNIO is at the forefront of cancer neuroscience, boasting a rich publication history in high-impact journals and a diverse team with extensive experience in the nervous system and cancer studies. Continuing on our previous collaboration with Dr Valiente through the Brain Metastasis Cell Line Consortium (BrMPanel), my project focused on using the host lab’s preciously established brain organotypic culture drug screening platform (METPlatform) to identify novel therapeutic strategies for breast cancer brain metastasis treatment.

Can you summarise the research you did?

Breast cancer brain metastases (BCBM) are an aggressive form of metastatic spread occurring in 10–30% of breast cancer patients. The prevalence of brain metastasis is on the rise, and the unique biological and molecular features of BCBM are not yet exploited sufficiently to develop therapeutic approaches specific to this condition. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved in the successful colonization of the brain by breast cancer cells and identifying drugs with central nervous system antitumor effects could lead to therapies that are more effective in managing this advanced form of breast cancer.

The main aim of the EACR Travel Fellowship project was to test several protein inhibitors currently in clinical trials for solid cancers in 3D breast cancer brain metastasis models by leveraging the extensive experience of Dr Valientes’s group in establishing brain organotypic cultures. Brain organotypic cultures represent a physiologically relevant 3D ex-vivo model of the brain, able to simulate in-vivo-like situations, making them ideal experimental models for conducting pharmacological studies. Utilizing those models, I performed a comprehensive drug screening of our top drug candidates for inhibiting cancer cell proliferation in the brain, which could potentially pave the way for ground-breaking new therapeutic strategies for breast cancer brain metastatic patients.

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

Cutting-edge techniques in the field of brain metastatic research that I learned during my visit to one of the most distinguishing labs I will incorporate into my current and future projects. I have also gotten a lot of advice and suggestions regarding my current projects from the researchers in the host lab that I am looking forward to incorporating into my current project. I am committed to disseminating the acquired knowledge extensively at my home institute, enriching the RCSI research environment. Moreover, visiting CNIO expanded my international collaboration network and strengthened my existing collaboration with Dr Manuel Valiente’s group.

Petra at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

Manuel Valiente’s group is a world-leading laboratory specialist in studying brain metastases. As a cancer biologist that focuses on breast cancer brain metastases, I am interested in understanding the mechanism that enables breast cancer cells to survive in the brain and how could that process be stopped. By joining Dr Valiente’s group, I had opportunity to learn more how cancer cells of the nervous system interact with other brain cells in order to survive and which pre-clinical models most accurately represents central nervous system malignancies. Combing my cancer research background with host lab experience in neuroscience I gained deeper knowledge of how to model dynamic interaction between cancer cells and brain cells, which is essential for discovering novel anti-cancer therapies. Moreover, travelling and meeting people from different scientific backgrounds and cultures boosted my enthusiasm and sparked new research ideas.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Visiting Dr Valiente’s lab was an extremely rewarding experience. From the start, my project was designed as a fast-paced project with clear objectives and deliverables. I was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome and extensive support offered by Dr Valiente and his group. They quickly integrated my workflow into their day-to-day activities, and I felt fully integrated into the group’s scientific and social life. I would like to specifically thank PhD student Ana De Pablos and Dr Pedro Garcia Gomez for their help and support during and after my lab visit. A blend of very exciting and engaging projects and very supportive mentor and colleagues left me feeling very motivated to achieve my personal and career goals.

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.