Queen’s to Torino: EACR Extravaganza
The annual congress of the European Association of Cancer Research (EACR) was held in June 2023 and a group of PhD students and Postdoctoral Research Fellows ventured to Turin for four days of science-filled talks and networking, making sure Queen’s and PGJCCR were well represented amongst the 2,000 other attendees.
The conference was composed of a range of keynote lectures, symposiums, proofed papers, educational sessions, and poster presentations as well as an extensive industry exhibition.
Topics included but were not limited to: tumour dormancy/persistence, tumour metabolism and epigenetic control, neoantigens and vaccines, liquid biopsies, drug resistance, challenging drug targets, spatial transcriptomics, and computational biology. Despite the broad range of focus which spanned many disciplines of cancer research in parallel sessions, a useful and educational conference was still available to a wide audience.
Of particular interest was the keynote lecture by Pezcoller Foundation – EACR Translational Cancer Researcher Award winner Prof. Dr. Nicola Aceto (ETH Zurich, Switzerland). During the lecture he described his work in circulating tumour cells (CTC) and gave a summary of the findings/publications from the Aceto lab over the last five years. This included characterisation of clusters of CTCs compared to single CTCs, with the former having significantly more metastatic potential (Gkountela et al., Cell). Following this, Aceto detailed a proof-of-mechanism study to test the ability of an FDA approved sodium potassium ATPase to dissociate clusters of CTCs into individual cells, based on promising preliminary data. In addition, Aceto also described an exciting recent study where, within the breast cancer setting, it has been found that CTCs are released almost exclusively during sleep (Diamantopoulou et al., Nature), which is the basis of future work within the lab to further characterise the process and specific location of extravasation.
The focus of another particularly interesting talk by Mariangela Russo was on persister cells. Her work highlighted the parallel between stress response pathways used by bacteria under particular conditions (e.g. antibiotics) with the adaptative responses cancer cells utilize. This work is explained in her perspective piece. A pathway which she investigated was the transient window of high mutation rate that bacterial cells present following exposure with antibiotics. Russo’s hypothesis was this window of high mutation rate may also present in cancer cells following a selective pressure, such as targeted treatment (e.g. EGFR inhibition). Using colorectal cancer cells, this transient window of high mutation rate was recapitulated. This work highlights the benefit of knowing and understanding these evolutionary adaptive pathways cancer cells use, as it provides the opportunity to use drugs in combination to prolong the efficacy of targeted therapeutics (Russo et al., Science).
The conference was a great opportunity for ECRs from PGJCCR to network and meet with collaborators in person after working with many of them virtually in the past. There were also some familiar faces, including Queen’s alumnus Dr Eoghan Mulholland, currently based in Oxford as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Leedham Lab. Mulholland presented his research on the role of Grem1 in stromal remodelling and creating the stem cell niche.
The value of in-person interactions are fully appreciated as we emerge from the Covid era, and diverse conferences such as EACR provided the perfect opportunity for this.
The EACR Congress was certainly one of the largest conferences of the year, and our PhD students and Postdoctoral Research Fellows made excellent representatives for PGJCCR and QUB, highlighting our top-notch research on the forefront.
Dr Sudhir Malla, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow from the Dunne Lab - recipient of the EACR Travel Grant - was given the platform to give a 10-minute talk on his research into bowel cancer where he and the team have uncovered a nuance intrinsic tumour biology associated with differentiation-like features and poor prognosis.
Elaine Gilmore, a final year PhD student from the Buckley Lab - recipient of the Emily Sarah Montgomery Travel Scholarship from Queens - travelled to the EACR to present her research on the promising role of STING activating nanoparticles in breast cancer.
Dr Natalie Fisher, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Dunne Lab - awarded the QUB School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science Conference Fund to attend - presented her early work on a series of novel early-stage colorectal cancer and precancerous datasets.
Shania Corry, PhD Student in the Dunne lab - awarded the Emily Sarah Montgomery Travel Scholarship - presented her work on the role of PolyI:C in mimicking a viral response shown to drive a good prognosis in the aggressive stroma-high subgroup.
Representing the McDade group Dr Andrea Lees presented her work on a novel p53-induced NFkB-regulatory signalling complex; Emily Rogan presented her findings on the promise of utilising a p53 functional activity score as opposed to mutational status alone and Emily Agnew presented work on targeting USP7 in Colorectal cancer.
In summary EACR congress was a fantastic opportunity to hear from world leading experts spanning many cancer research disciplines. It was also an opportunity to be inspired by the science and leaders of the future.