Colin Hutton is a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work in the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the USA between May and June 2023.

The EACR has joined forces with Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,000 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.

Colin Hutton

Name: Colin Hutton
Job title: Postdoctoral Researcher
Home institute: The Francis Crick Institute, UK
Host institute: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, USA
Dates of visit: 28 May to 28 June 2023
Other funding sources: Some additional funding provided by Colin’s Group Leaders core funding
Research: Tumours can be killed by immune cells but most cancers find ways to resist this. How cancers do this is not well understood. During my visit I learnt an exciting new method to systematically test how cancers resist being attacked by immune cells. The method I learnt is based on CRISPR, which is a newly invented way of cutting DNA very precisely. This allows us to ‘cut out’ one gene at a time from the cancer cells and test the impact on immune evasion. I will use this approach to understand how tumours avoid destruction by the immune system specifically in colorectal cancer.

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

Our lab in London has recently developed new experimental models of colorectal cancer. We find these colorectal cancers resist being killed by the immune system, just like is seen in patients and wanted to better understand how the cancer cells avoid being attacked by the immune system. However, we didn’t have the methods to do this in our lab, at our research institute or even in the UK. The Manguso Lab in the USA has developed exciting new ways to study tumour immune evasion that would work perfectly in our new colorectal cancer models. However, the method is complicated and takes many weeks to learn. I applied for the EACR Travel Fellowship because it not only allowed me to visit the Manguso lab but allowed me to do so for a sufficient amount of time to learn the skills in detail so I can bring them back to the UK. It was an amazing visit and I learnt a huge amount. I’m excited to apply my newly learnt skills and share them with my colleagues.

“One day I hope to receive a request asking if I can host someone a lab visit and, remembering this fantastic experience, I will wholeheartedly accept!”

Can you summarise the research you did?

CRISPR is a new gene editing method that precisely cuts DNA and can be adapted to help us better understand how tumours resist being destroyed by the immune system. Such CRISPR ‘screens’ work by cutting out one gene at a time in cancer cells and then seeing what happens when the immune system comes into contact with the cancer cells. Importantly, this method is unbiased and doesn’t require us to know what the function of the gene is before we start the experiment. However, there are approximately 20,000 genes in the mammalian genome, so doing this one gene at time would take a huge amount of time and resources.

During the visit I learnt how use ‘pooled’ CRISPR screens to study immune evasion, in which each cancer cell has only one gene edit but the cells are kept together in one large pool and next generation sequencing of the final pool after immune attack reveals which genes allow the cancer cell to avoid immune destruction. Whilst in the Manguso lab I learnt everything needed to do our own pooled CRISPR screen, including how to design CRISPR experiments to make precise DNA cuts, how to do gene-editing on scale to create cell pools, how to apply appropriate immune pressure, sample collection and processing, and data analysis. We packed a lot in to the visit!

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

Boston has lots of interesting things to do! I went rock climbing with some of the other lab members and also got to go whale watching! The boat takes 45 mins from Boston harbour and we got to see dozens of humpback whales feeding in the sun, including a ~6 month old calf that seemed to be very much enjoying jumping out of the water!

Colin Hutton and Aiping Jiang, Postdoc host

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

My personal highlight was seeing how passionate ever member in the host lab are for finding new ways to use CRISPR for understanding cancer biology. CRISPR screens can be complicated and challenging but the reagents and protocols the host lab have developed make it a method that more researchers can now use to study tumour immune evasion. Their CRISPR enthusiasm was great to be around! I found it very inspirational to see the host lab, who are world leaders in specialist CRISPR skills, being so open to hosting visitors and sharing their methods. One of the best aspects of science is the collaborative spirit and learning of new skills! The visit has been very important for the progress of my research and without it we wouldn’t be able to explore immune evasion in our new cancer models we have developed. One day I hope to receive a request asking if I can host someone a lab visit and, remembering this fantastic experience, I will wholeheartedly accept!

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.