Rhianna Blyth is a PhD student at the Centre for Cancer Immunology, University of Southampton in the UK who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at IPBS-Toulouse in France between September and October 2023.

The EACR is supported by 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: Rhianna Blyth
Job title:
PhD student
Home institute: Centre for Cancer Immunology, University of Southampton in the UK
Host institute: IPBS-Toulouse in France
Dates of visit: 10 September – 07 October 2023
Other funding organisations: Cancer Research UK covered additional costs, including the PhD stipend.
Research: Despite the established link between breast cancer and obesity, we still don’t fully understand the relationship between breast cancer cells and adipose tissue. This is partly due to a lack of lab-based models that include breast cancer cells and adipocytes together. Therefore, my PhD project is focused on developing a novel 3D model of obesity-associated breast cancer. This model contains breast cancer cells cultured with adipocytes and other cell types within the breast in 3D. We currently use a combination of cell lines and patient-derived cells and intend to develop a model that is fully comprised of patient-derived material.

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

Over the past two years of my PhD, we have developed a 3D model of breast cancer associated with obesity. We currently use adipose-derived stem cells to generate ‘obese’ adipocytes and now want to compare this to primary mature and obese adipocytes. However, we didn’t have the expertise of culturing primary adipocytes in 3D.

The Muller lab recently proposed a novel and exciting 3D method of culturing primary mature mammary adipocytes in 3D that we thought would be compatible with our current model system. As adipocytes are difficult to work with, and learning this technique relies on the availability of primary material, I applied for the EACR Travel Fellowship as it allowed me to visit the Muller lab for enough time to learn the skills in detail so I could bring them back to the University of Southampton. I have been an EACR member since the beginning of my PhD and kept note of any funding opportunities for undertaking lab placements abroad. I’ve always wanted to travel and work abroad to enrich my professional and personal development and I’m so grateful to the EACR Travel Fellowship for giving me this opportunity.

“I’m excited to apply these new skills to my PhD project and share them with my colleagues”

How did you choose the host lab?

The Muller lab is renowned for their research on adipose tissue and the breast tumour microenvironment, having coined the term ‘cancer-associated adipocytes’, and determined the mechanism of adipocyte delipidation. Their recent publication in Scientific Reports outlined a novel approach for culturing primary mature mammary adipocytes. Adipocytes are notoriously difficult to culture, and this may be one of the reasons why there is currently a lack of 3D models of breast cancer which incorporate adipocytes. Incorporating primary mammary adipocytes into our 3D model system and as a validation technique for our current model has been the main aim of the final year of my PhD project. After reading the Muller lab’s publication, I sent an email to Prof. Muller enquiring whether they would consider a collaboration and if they could teach me their novel culture technique.

Rhianna in the host lab

Can you summarise some of the research you did?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women globally and in the UK, 8% of cases are caused by being overweight or obese. However, the relationship between breast cancer cells and adipocytes still requires investigation. In order to study this relationship, better in vitro models are required in the lab that are capable or recapitulating the obese breast tumour microenvironment.

During this lab placement, I learnt two different techniques for culturing primary mammary adipose tissue in 3D. I also learnt and performed some key validation techniques for assessing viability, size and function of adipocytes. I then applied these newly developed skills to assess the feasibility of transferring this 3D culture technique across to the University of Southampton by conducting a small experiment co-culturing breast tumour cells with the adipocytes. This was an amazing visit and I learned a lot of new skills. I’m excited to apply these new skills to my PhD project and share them with my colleagues.

Describe a typical day on your visit.

I typically started my day by getting the Metro to the IPBS, which during a Rugby World Cup was often a bit of a squeeze. Once I arrived, I then sat at my desk and planned the experiments for that day. If I had a later start in the lab, I would go into the city centre and work from a café with a coffee and of course a croissant. During this placement, I was shadowing and working with two PhD students in the lab; Marie Rebeaud and Marine Hernandez. Marie was my main mentor as one of the co-first authors who developed this 3D culture method. Two to four times a week, we had adipose tissue samples from the hospital. On a day where we had a tissue sample to work with, most of the day was spent isolating the adipocytes and then incorporating these into a 3D matrix or gel. In the afternoon, we would then carry out different characterisation techniques such as a glycerol release assay or using confocal microscopy to image the adipocytes in 3D.

Rhianna looking out of the castle at Carcassonne

Did you take part in any local activities?

Toulouse was a great place to stay with incredible food, markets, art, and lots of history. On the weekends I tried to make the most of my time in France by exploring other nearby cities. I took trains to Montpellier, Sète and Foix which were all beautiful. Foix is a very small city that has a castle on top of the hill which you look up to from the streets below. The view across the Pyrenees mountains from the top of the Castle was incredible. On my final evening in Toulouse, I watched the France-Italy rugby game in a pub with a couple of other PhD students and their friends, which was a nice send-off before returning to the UK.

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

The main aim for my placement was to learn a novel method of culturing patient-derived adipocytes in 3D. These new technical skills will be transferred to my home laboratory, and I will be further developing these skills throughout the remainders of my PhD. This lab visit will also result in future collaborative projects, in addition to a transfer of skills and knowledge exchange between our institutions. I am also eager to share this experience with other PhD students at my institution and hopefully inspire them to consider applying for a short lab visit, to develop their personal and professional growth.

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.