Teresa Abreu is a PhD student at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC), University of Coimbra in Portugal who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands between May and August 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: Teresa Abreu
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC), University of Coimbra, Portugal
Host institute: Leiden University Medical Center, the Netherlands
Dates of visit: 18 May – 20 August 2023
Other funding organisations: Monthly salary supported by the Portuguese funding agency for Science and Technology (FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia)
Research: CAR-T cell therapy is an innovative medical treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. Here, T cells – “soldier” cells of the immune system – are genetically modified with a CAR-receptor that guides them to recognise and attack malignant cells. Albeit the success in blood cancers, CAR-T cells activity in solid cancers has been limited by poor access and harsh living conditions inside the tumours. In this context, my goal is to exploit a new tumour target that helps overcoming these barriers and generate a novel CAR-technology able to efficiently tackle down certain solid tumours.
Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?
The main goal of my PhD project is to generate a CAR-T cell therapy targeting a yet to be explored tumour antigen, demonstrated to be overexpressed in different types of solid tumours. Accordingly, a crucial part of this work is to validate the translation potential of this new CAR-technology, by characterising the expression of the tumour target in patient-derived samples, as well as potential interactions with infiltrating immune cells. To accomplish this task, a collaboration with Noel de Miranda’s team, an expert in the field of cancer immunogenomics, was established, giving me the opportunity to go to the Netherlands and learn from this amazing group.
Besides work-related factors, my own personal motives heavily contributed to plan this visit, since going abroad has long been a goal of mine. Getting out of my comfort zone and being embedded in a different culture, as well as meeting new people with other life perspectives, was crucial to boost my personal growth. In this context, my decision to apply to an EACR Travel Fellowship came naturally, as my goals were perfectly aligned with this program, that encourage young researchers to develop new scientific skills in international settings, by providing suitable funding and other resources.
How did you choose the host lab?
Noel de Miranda’s team is renowned internationally for their expertise in cancer genetics and tumour immunology, being at the forefront of applying multidimensional immunophenotyping and spatial bioinformatic approaches to study the tumour microenvironment of solid tumours. This differentiated expertise combined with the cutting-edge methodologies and high-quality facilities, as well as the multidisciplinary work environment provided at the LUMC, have emerged this lab as the ideal choice to collaborate.
Can you summarise some of the research you did?
The research work I conducted during my stay at Noel de Miranda’s team included both lab work and data analysis using bioinformatic tools. I started by performing immunohistochemistry (IHC) on several patient-derived tumor-microarrays, to evaluate the expression and subcellular localisation of my tumour target across different patients. I then crossed the results obtained with imaging mass cytometry data, previously acquired by the group, of the same samples to assess potential differences among immune cell phenotypes and the IHC scoring. For this analysis I learned how to work with R programming language and, in fact, acknowledging the power of this tool to analyse large data sets, was a great achievement for me during this visit.
The results obtained were validated by multiplex immunofluorescence on a larger cohort, where two different immune panels were developed and optimised. Cell segmentation and phenotype counting were performed on the images acquired, and the results were compared with the discovery cohort. Indeed, during this visit, I was able to work, for the first time, with clinical samples and to learn different imaging techniques, and subsequent data analysis, which I believe to be crucial technical skills in my field of research.
What was a personal highlight of your trip?
There were several meaningful experiences that had a positive impact on my journey and contributed for my personal development, at different levels. As strange as it may sound, one of those was to (re)learn how to ride a bicycle, after more than 15 years of pause. Being a major form of transport in the Leiden, it was a huge challenge for me to overcome my fear and having the courage to keep on trying, even after all the times I fell! Being able to routinely bike after some time was an important boost in my self-confidence and a reminder that we are a lot more capable than we (sometimes) think. Overcoming oneself is always a great achievement and this one was definitely a highlight from this trip.
“This visit has undoubtedly been a significant turning point in my path, and I truly believe it will have a lasting, positive impact on my future research career”
Have you brought back any specific knowledge that has benefited your home lab?
Although most of the methodologies and data analysis techniques I learned from Noel de Miranda’s team are not routinely performed in my group, the one I believe that benefits the most my home lab is learning how to work with R programming language. R is a highly versatile bioinformatic tool designed for complex statistical analysis and informative data visualisations, having a significant impact on the lives of scientists of any background. Accordingly, the knowledge I gathered during this visit will be shared with my home lab, aiming at implementing R as the preferable tool for data analysis in the future, and further ease the process of data-driven decision-making.
How has this visit been beneficial to your research?
Having the opportunity to be supervised by Noel de Miranda and learning from his team was an enriching experience that highly contributed to advance my research work and scientific skills. Here I was able to learn how to access the tumour-immune context on patient-derived samples through different imaging techniques and data analysis. Indeed, understanding the complexity of tumour-immune responses has a pivotal role in unraveling resistance mechanisms, such as the challenges associated with generating effective CAR-T cell therapies against solid tumours.
Moreover, being embedded in a multidisciplinary team, allowed me to meet people from different backgrounds and with unique academic paths, with whom I was able to share my thoughts and discuss new ideas, either about science or personal experiences. I am extremely grateful for being awarded with an EACR Travel Fellowship, as it gave me the opportunity to strengthen my scientific profile, not only by enhancing my knowledge and technical competences, but also by expanding my network and perspectives. This visit has undoubtedly been a significant turning point in my path, and I truly believe it will have a lasting, positive impact on my future research career.
If you are interested in applying for the Travel Fellowship scheme, please click here for more information: EACR Travel Fellowships.