Emma Hazelwood is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work in QIMR Berghofer, Australia between April and May 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.

Name: Emma Hazelwood
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: University of Bristol, UK
Host institute: QIMR Berghofer, Australia
Dates of visit: 17 April to 26 May 2023
Other funding sources: European Cancer Prevention Organisation and the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation
Research: We know that people who have obesity are at an increased risk of getting cancer. My research looks at what the reasons for this are. I look at massive genetic datasets which include hundreds of thousands of people. I look at which genetic components are more common in people with obesity. Then, I look at whether the likelihood of getting bowel cancer is influenced by these genetic components. This approach has led to clues as to how obesity causes bowel cancer, including highlighting that metabolism (the way we get energy from the food that we eat) seems to be important.

Why did you choose this host lab?

Dr O’Mara leads the Cancer Genetic Susceptibility Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer, which is a world-class medical research institute with an internationally-renowned genetics department. The O’Mara lab is a leading lab in genetic susceptibility research. I was fortunate enough to have worked with Dr O’Mara previously, and when we met at a conference our conversation gave me the idea for the project that was completed in this research visit.

“This has been great for making new connections and improving my networking skills”

Can you summarise the research you did?

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide. However, what causes the disease to develop is still unknown, which makes designing new drugs challenging. The expression of different genes, i.e. the extent to which each gene can achieve its function, is an important aspect of biology which may have a role in colorectal cancer development.

I used large genomic studies to estimate the expression of many genes in colorectal cancer cases and healthy controls. This allowed me to find genes which have expression which is increased or decreased in colorectal cancer patients, and which therefore may have a role in disease development. I deployed lots of sensitivity analyses to evaluate these associations, which led to the identification of 28 genes with robust evidence for a role in disease development. I then assessed the suitability of the genes identified as future drug targets for colorectal cancer, through predicting potential side effects and identifying drugs which target similar genes.

Finally, I performed a further analysis to determine whether known colorectal cancer risk factors (including BMI, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking) cause colorectal cancer through alterations to the expression of the genes identified.

Emma presenting the research completed to the host lab

Was there anything you particularly liked about the host institution?

There were several things. Firstly, I appreciated the frequent research seminars which covered a wide range of topics. Secondly, following the COVID-19 pandemic the host institution has gone back to being fully in-person, in contrast to my home institution where most meetings are hybrid or remote. I enjoyed meeting people in-person and being in a full office. Thirdly, I really liked how social the host institution was, and how friendly people were. There were after work drinks at the onsite bar every Friday after work, which were well-attended and a great place to meet new people.

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

I have brought back technical knowledge of the methods used on my research visit. I have already used this knowledge to provide preliminary data for a grant application by my home lab group. Additionally, as the host lab and wider research group primarily research cancer genetics, which is an area in which I am interested but did not have much experience previously, I also learned a lot about this topic more generally. Through the research visit and with the host supervisor’s guidance I also became more familiar with Python and Linux coding languages. Finally, being exposed to different ways of working has allowed me to learn how to work more effectively as a member of a team.

Emma working in the host lab with an incredible view

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

We are in the process of writing up the research visit as a paper to be published. Additionally, we have already submitted an abstract to the annual American Society for Human Genetics meeting.

How has your trip inspired you in your research?

This visit has benefited my career in a variety of ways. Firstly, learning new techniques and being introduced to new areas of research has improved my technical knowledge, which will be useful in future research. Secondly, we hope that the paper currently being produced will be a high impact publication and will lead to a deeper understanding of colorectal cancer development. Thirdly, I met many new people in different areas of research whilst at QIMR, which has been great for making new connections and improving my networking skills. Finally, being exposed to different ways of working has allowed me to identify how I work best.

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.