Unai Illarregi Insausti is a PhD student at the University of the Basque Country, Spain who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Sainte-Justine UHC Research Center, Canada between April and July 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: Unai Illarregi Insausti
Job title:
PhD student
Home institute: University of the Basque Country, Spain
Host institute: Sainte-Justine UHC Research Center, Canada
Dates of visit: 03 April – 07 July 2023
Research: Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common pediatric cancer and remains an important cause of death from disease in children. In this context, my research aims to identify new biomarkers for predicting survival at diagnosis. While protein-coding genes have been extensively studied, I am interested in long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), genes that produce RNA molecules without producing proteins. Although lncRNAs cannot produce proteins themselves, they can regulate the expression of other genes through various mechanisms. Investigating these lncRNAs could provide valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of ALL’s development and lead to the discovery of new useful biomarkers.

How did you choose the host lab?

My home research group and the host lab were already collaborators since some years, working together on a project that is part of my PhD project. Additionally, Ángela Gutierrez Camino, a researcher from my home lab, had previously conducted her post-doctoral research in Dr. Sinnett’s lab. Since Ángela needed to return to complete certain projects, I had the chance to accompany her. This situation provided me with the opportunity to spend a few months working alongside them, enabling me to acquire a wealth of new knowledge. Given Ángela’s presence, my integration into the group was notably smoother.

Unai and his host lab team

Can you summarise the research you did?

During the first weeks of my stay, I worked on a project analysing circRNAs in different B-ALL subtypes. I did an update of previously done analyses, which let me learn bioinformatic techniques to analyse circRNAs, and proposing new analyses, adding my point of view and ideas to the project. Then I focused on my main goal, the survival analysis in B-ALL patients based on lncRNAs. With the help of people in the lab, we selected the patients of interest for the project, and once having the list, I started to align and quantify lncRNAs’ expression in those samples. The next step was to create survival prediction models using our home lab cohort and the Canadian cohort, for which I tried different approaches. I also took advantage of the stay to try new analyses using the large amount of data they have generated during years in the lab, as telomeres’ expression and length quantification, early T-cell precursor ALL (ETP-ALL) prediction, or to understand other analyses that they optimised and I could bring back to my home lab.

Describe a ‘typical day’ on your visit.

I used to go walking to the Research Center, and after some work, we usually met at mid-morning to have a coffee and comment doubts, do brainstorming, or just talk about our plans or latest news. The next stop was to have lunch at 12, quite early for me at the beginning, but I got used to it, and after, for sure, another coffee and sometimes some cookies! Wednesdays were a bit different, as we had the weekly lab meeting and everybody was there, because the rest of the days some lab mates used to work from home. Angela, Chantal, Claire and Alain were almost every day in the lab, contributing to make the stay a highly positive experience.

What were you able to do that you could not have achieved in your home lab?

One of the objectives of my PhD project is to identify and validate novel prognostic lncRNA biomarkers in pediatric B-ALL. With this research stay, I had the opportunity to work with a big and very well characterised validation cohort, which is essential for that purpose. Moreover, I could beneficiate from the knowledge of experienced bioinformatic and clinical groups to carry on this kind, and more, analyses.

Unai attending an ice hockey game

Did you take part in any interesting local activities?

One of the main four sports in Canada is ice hockey, and I had the opportunity to go to an ice hockey match with some flatmates and friends. It was a great experience, people was very excited, as the local team won, and the whole match was kind of a show.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

When I finished working and before coming back home, I had the opportunity to do a little journey to Banff, spending three days in the spectacular Canadian Rockies. I saw some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life, all of them full of nature around and I was lucky that I also had good weather. I also did two weekend little travels to Toronto and Quebec City from Montreal, which were also nice, but nothing comparable to Banff.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

I think that I am quite impulsive in science, that is, when I have a new idea, even if I have never worked on it, I try to carry it out. In this stay, I have been able to do it 100%, since the environment that came up with new ideas was very good, and we tried to try everything new that occurred to us or, at least, read more about it and save it for a future to do list. In this aspect, I was very much reflected in Chantal’s enthusiasm for new analysis or techniques.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

In summary, thanks to the EACR Travel Fellowship I had the opportunity to experience this unforgettable research stay, in terms of not only what I have learned, but also the personal experience of traveling abroad to a country like Canada, meet the people I have met, and visiting incredible places.

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.