MCT Success at RCSI Research Day 2018

Dear All,
I wanted to congratulate everyone for their significant contributions to recent RCSI Research Day.  MCT’s presence was strong on the day with a number of keys oral and poster presentations from across the four MCT research pillars. 
In particular, a huge congratulations to:
 Dr Joan Ni Gabhann for the Most Highly Cited RCSI Senior Authored Paper with Industry Collaboration 2012-2016 for her paper ‘Btk regulates macrophage polarization in response to lipopolysaccharide’.
 Rebecca Watkin (PI Prof Steven Kerrigan) and Edmund Gilbert (PI Prof Gianpiero Cavalleri)  who jointly won the best postgraduate oral presentation, sponsored by Bio-Sciences Limited, for their presentations on ‘S.aureus induced miR330-3p expression triggers abnormal permeability in an ex-vivo 2D model of sepsis’ and ‘The Irish DNA Atlas: Revealing Fine-Scale Population Structure and History within Ireland’, respectively.
 Prof James O’Donnell (ICVB) who won the Clinician CEO Innovation Award.
 Dr Ingmar Schoen for his novel Invention Disclosure.
 Camille Hurley (PI Dr Darran O’Connor) Edmund Gilbert (PI Prof Gianpiero Cavalleri)  and Conor Duffy (PI Claire McCoy) for winning inaugural RCSI International Secondment Awards.
 Finally, well done to Dr Claire McCoy for giving an inspiring and heartfelt presentation about her SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leader Award.
 Well done all. A fantastic achievement for MCT.
 Best wishes,

MCT Research at the 54th Irish Association for Cancer Research Meeting 2018

Many MCTers presented their research at the 54th Irish Association for Cancer Research Meeting on February 22-23, 2018. The annual IACR meetings bring together the Irish cancer research community and distinguished international speakers. 260 attendees registered for the meeting with 150 abstracts accepted for oral and poster presentations. Notably, the IACR meeting committee creatively shapes the way this conference run. This year, the most dynamic session – Oral Poster Presentations (Prof. John Fitzpatrick Medal, 5 min talk+1 min Q&A) was set for the lay audience with the judging panel consisting of patients, patient advocates and researchers. Very interesting experience, have to say. Two MCT research studies were selected for this session: Olga Piskareva presented the collaborative project between her team and Prof Fergal O’Brien (TERG) “3D Tissue-Engineered Cell Model Of Neuroblastoma For Evaluating Cytotoxic and miRNA-Targeted Therapeutics” and O’Connor’s collaborative project on “RNA Sequencing Identifies BRD3 As A Novel Therapeutic Target In Invasive Lobular Carcinoma Breast Cancer” was presented by Kathryn Haley. Darran O’Connor himself was an invited plenary speaker. He talked about “The Power Of 1: What Can We Learn From Molecular Case Studies?” at the plenary session Emerging Techniques In Biomarker Discovery, Drug Development And Patient Stratification. MCT had a spot at the Proffered Paper Session with John Nolan presented the first data of the NCRC funded project “Modulation of Drug Resistance in High-Risk Neuroblastoma Through Exosomal miRNA”. Many other MCTers had Posters. For Shane O’Grady and Lisa Dwane, it was the last conference in the PhD status and for Olga Piskareva – in her role of Honorary Treasurer f0r the IACR!

Well done to all!

The 55th Irish Association for Cancer Research Meeting will be taking place in Belfast.

Reported by Olga Piskareva

MCT Research Talks November 27th 2017

Dr Justyna Surowka, Medical University of Lublin, Lublin, Poland
(Current Erasmus Post-doc with the O’Connor group) presented “Assessment of chosen immune cell populations in patients with ovarian cancer”
Despite the decades of studies on developing new therapeutic strategies, ovarian cancer remains one of the malignancies with the highest mortality rate. Therefore, new therapies, among them immunotherapy, are in demand. Recently, Kurman and Shih proposed a new classification of ovarian cancer. It is based on molecular and histopathological differences between tumors and divides them into two subtypes: type I and type II ovarian cancer. However, there are no studies exploring functions of an immune system in those types of ovarian cancer. We demonstrated that each type of ovarian cancer can induce a unique phenotype of dendritic cells and differentiation of Tregs, both associated with immunosuppressive function, which may be an obstacle while developing effective anticancer dendritic cell vaccination.

Dr Sudipto Das presented “Dissecting the epigenome of metastatic colorectal cancer”
The talk highlighted the experimental and analytical pipelines that have been established in the lab in order to develop single-base pair resolution DNA methylation maps derived from difficult-to-handle FFPE (Formalin Fixed Paraffin Embedded) tissue. We next applied these optimized approaches to primary tumour samples derived from 58 metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC) patients and 10 matched normal samples, with an aim to unravel the methylation alterations across both conventional gene regulatory regions such as promoters as well as alternative regulatory elements such as enhancers of protein-coding and non-coding genes. Intriguingly, we have now identified a DNA methylation specific signature consisting of 377 differentially methylated loci that differentiates tumour and normal and in parallel provides us with three distinctive clinical clusters, which show a significant overlap with prognostically relevant consensus molecular sub-types of CRC. However, further work is warranted to ascertain the precise function of the signature as well as their role in predicting patient response to treatment.
The second part of the talk detailed about the ongoing genomics focused on “n-of-1” genomic studies which essentially involves atypical cancer presentation in patients, with the idea of understanding the biology of such unusual clinical phenotypes and moreover to identify any potential therapeutic targets.

MCT Lab Safari Activities

On November 14th, we welcomed almost 50 secondary school students at our Department for Lab Safari. The event was designed to encourage young people to consider a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine through hands-on experience and demonstrations prepared by our researchers. We developed 6 different workstations focused on Cancer biology and biomarkers, Drug Discovery, Multiple Sclerosis, Human Genetics and Immunology/Body clock

Tracy Robson

The event was opened by Prof. Tracy Robson, Head of MCT, sharing her career path in research and lessons that she learnt. Dr Avril Hutch, Head of RSCI Equality and Diversity Unit, also spoke about stereotypes in STEMM careers and having an awareness of unconscious bias.

Caragh Stapleton

Human Genetics
Our workstation was led by Caragh Stapleton, Katherine Benson and Edmund Gilbert, centered around human genetics. Our activity set out to teach participants about inherited traits and demonstrate how variation in our DNA influences our physical attributes. We investigated a number of traits including PTC taster (using PTC taste strips), colour blindness, widows peak, tongue rolling, attached earlobes, bent little finger, eye colour and red hair. Each participant noted whether or not they had the given trait and we then discussed the hypotheses of the genetic variants influencing the different traits.

Olga Piskareva and John Nolan

Cancer Biomarkers
Our workstation was led by Olga Piskareva and John Nolan. We explained the concept of biomarkers and the importance of discovering novel biomarkers for neuroblastoma, a childhood malignancy. Various chromosomal aberrations can be biomarkers of neuroblastoma aggressiveness. One of the strongest predictors of rapid neuroblastoma progression is MYCN status. We selected several neuroblastoma cell lines with known MYCN status providing a good illustration of biomarker’s quantity. Using immunodetection, we visualised the differences in the MYCN presence.

Mariana Patricia Cervantes Silva

Immunology/Body Clock
Our workstation was led by Annie Curtis, Mariana Patricia Cervantes Silva, George Timmons and Cathy Wyse. The theme of our activity was on the body clock and immune function. We discussed with the students why they get jet lag and what that has to do with their body clock. Students then moved to the first station where they got a chance to add colouring to macrophages, so we had red, yellow, blue and green macrophages and were able to look at their coloured macrophages under a microscope. Then they moved to the next station where they got to see the master clock which resides in the hypothalamus of the brain under a microscope. Finally, we displayed some images of activated macrophages and explained their function.

Stephanie Annett

Cancer Cell Biology
Our workstation lead by Sudipto Das, Gillian Moore and Stephanie Annett, focused on showcasing the various laboratory-based approaches applied regularly to identify and investigate novel gene or protein-based biomarkers of cancer progression. Within our workstation, we highlighted three key areas including how samples following biopsy from a cancer patient are used to construct tissue microarrays which are used for assessing the importance of a certain protein in cancer. This was followed by demonstrating a particular tissue culture-based method used to study anti-cancer properties of drugs and finally displaying an array of microscopic images of blood vessels developing in a given tumour.

Conor Duffy

Multiple Sclerosis
Our workstation was led by Claire McCoy, Remsha Afzal and Conor Duffy. The research focus at our lab safari station was Multiple Sclerosis (MS). We explained how the causes of MS are unknown, but that it is characterised by an influx of immune cells into the brain and spinal cord. Our research aims to investigate one type of immune cell called the macrophage. We aim to understand the damage macrophages cause in MS and if we can reverse this to provide an alternative tool for MS therapeutics. We really enjoyed explaining our research at the Lab Safari, where we showed students how MS impacts on brain function and showed them examples of activated macrophages under the microscope.

Padraig Norton

Drug Discovery
Our workstation was led by Dermot Cox and Padraig Norton. Students were given a brief history of drug discovery. Then they were introduced to the basic concepts of how a drug binds to its target and the different ways in which a drug can bind. Students were then shown a demonstration of molecular docking on a computer whereby a small molecule, or drug candidate, was virtually docked into a target binding site using the software.

Tracy Robson and Anne Grady

The event was led by Dr Maria Morgan, Anne Grady, Prof. Tracy Robson, Dr Olga Piskareva and John O’Brien. Guides on the evening included Olwen Foley, Camille Hurley, Mary Ledwith, Seamus McDonald and Shane O’Grady.

Orphan Drug Status for ALM201 for Ovarian Cancer

Over the last 10 years, Prof Tracy Robson has collaborated closely with Almac Discovery on the development of the therapeutic peptide, ALM201, based on her initial research into the anti-angiogenic properties of FKBPL.  ALM201 is part of the active anti-angiogenic domain of FKBPL and is a potent inhibitor of angiogenesis both in vitro and in vivo.  The technology was patented by Professor Robson and licensed to Almac Discovery.  Following collaborative pre-clinical work showing robust efficacy, this ‘first-in-class’ FKBPL-based antiangiogenic peptide has entered phase I/II clinical trials in the ovarian setting (EudraCT No: 2014-001175-31). Whilst the trial is ongoing, we have received exciting news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Orphan Drug Designation to the drug candidate ALM201 in the treatment of ovarian cancer. The FDA Office grants orphan drug designation to encourage the development of drugs for the prevention, or treatment of a medical condition affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US and grants market exclusivity for a seven-year period if the sponsor complies with certain FDA specifications. Receiving Orphan Drug Designation for ovarian cancer underlines the fact that ALM201 may address a significant unmet medical need for this important disease.

Tracy Robson

Decoding neuroblastoma microenvironment

MCT Research Talks – 24th April 2017

The main challenge in treating high-risk neuroblastoma is to combat tumour metastasis and development of resistance to multiple chemotherapeutic drugs. In the native tissue, cancer cells are surrounded by a three-dimensional (3D) microenvironment which provides biological and physical support and determines disease initiation, progression, patient prognosis and response to treatment. The conventional two-dimensional (2D) cell culture lacks this feature resulting in discrepancies between in vitro and in vivo results. Current neuroblastoma studies employ either 2D cell culture systems or murine models or alternatively a mix of both.

In collaboration with Dr Caroline Curtin and Prof Fergal O’Biren (TERG), we decided to bridge the gap between 2D culture and in vivo tumours in neuroblastoma research by developing a tissue-engineered cell culture model of neuroblastoma. This project is supported by a pilot grant from Neuroblastoma UK.

To understand what signalling pathways are activated in 2D, 3D and in vivo neuroblastoma models, we decided to look closer at the differences between conventional 2D neuroblastoma cells and their xenografts. This way we hope to find those targets that are activated in both tumour microenvironment and the 3D tissue engineered models. Ciara and Larissa have begun this search by profiling xenograft samples with a panel of antibodies. Ciara became particularly fascinated by the elevated levels of c-jun, TCF1 and LEF1 in cisplatin-resistant neuroblastoma xenografts suggesting that the development of cisplatin resistance in neuroblastoma may be accompanied by activation of the wnt/b-catenin pathway in vivo. Larissa identified that cisplatin-resistant neuroblastoma cells secrete chromogranin A (CgA) at levels higher that cisplatin-sensitive cells. CgA levels also correlated with increased vascularisation and volume of murine orthotopic neuroblastoma xenografts. Altogether it suggests that CgA can be used as a marker of neuroblastoma cell growth both in vitro and in vivo.

Olga Piskareva

Daffodil Day Bake sale – 24/03/2017

Daffodil day is marked on the annual calendar as one of the most significant days recognised for collecting donations from the Irish public to fund cancer research as well as various services provided by the Irish Cancer Society. Given the substantial amount of cancer researchers based in RCSI and in particular in MCT, a joint effort between the MCT and the Department of Physiology and Medical Physics was carried out to organise a “Bake sale” aimed to raise funds on this occasion. Dr. Sudipto Das (MCT) and Dr. Catriona Dowling (Physiology and Medical Physics) primarily organised the bake sale.

This year bake sale boasted a wide variety of baked goods prepared by various members of the staff including senior researchers and post-graduate students. One the main highlights of the bake sale was an auction for an exquisite chocolate biscuit cake with a daffodil theme baked by Ms. Ina Woods (Physiology and Medical Physics). The auction was successfully completed by selling the cake at the highest bid of 50 euro by Prof. Jochen Prehn. This year bake sale was a highly successful event, which effectively raised 800 euro with all proceeding going towards the Irish Cancer Society.

We thank everyone who made this fundraising event into an enjoyable and fruitful event.

 Reported by Sudipto Das

Irish Association For Cancer Research Meeting 2017

Irish Association for Cancer Research – Annual Meeting takes place at Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 February 2017.

MCT cancer researchers secured oral presentations at different sessions. Prof Ray Stallings is a guest speaker at the Plenary Session focused on challenges in childhood cancers. He will be discussing ‘Modulation of neuroblastoma phenotype with epigenetically regulated miRNAs’.

Stephanie Annett will be giving a talk ‘FKBPL as a novel prognostic biomarker and therapeutic agent in high-grade serous ovarian cancer’ at Proffered Paper Session on Thursday morning. Two Irish Cancer Society funded PhD students will be discussing their findings at the Irish Cancer Society Scholar and Fellow Presentation session. Louise Walsh – ‘RNA sequencing identifies bromodomain proteins as a therapeutic strategy for invasive lobular carcinoma’ and Brian Mooney – ‘Expression of the cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript recruits BAF chromatin remodelling complexes to the estrogen receptor’.

Good luck to our presenters!

Olga Piskareva



RCSI and ALMAC Discovery Partnership to Target the Root of Cancer: Cancer Stem Cells

A New Year…and a new challenge for MCT postdoctoral researcher Gillian Moore 

Between the post-Christmas blues, cold days and that painful wait for the next pay day, January can be a pretty long and gruelling month. This year, deviating from the norm, my January kicked off to a great start with my eagerly awaited move to RCSI. Before Christmas I was delighted to find out that I would be working alongside Prof. Tracy Robson in the Department of MCT and I’m really excited for 2017, and the new opportunities and challenges this postdoctoral research position has to offer.
An ongoing research collaboration between the Robson research group and leading oncology pharmaceutical company, ALMAC Discovery, resulted in the development of ALM201, an anti-cancer peptide-based drug currently in Phase I clinical trial for patients with solid tumours. ALM201 is structurally based on the naturally occurring protein, FKBPL. FKBPL and its peptide-derivative, ALM201, have demonstrated potent anti-angiogenic properties, and notably, a unique ability to target cancer stem cells. Targeting of cancer stem cells has arguably become the Holy Grail of cancer therapy in recent years. Within the mass of every tumour there is a subpopulation of cancer cells with the ability to self-regenerate. It is this cell population that are responsible for the initiation and propagation of a tumour, and recurrence of disease following resistance to chemo and/or radiotherapy. If we can robustly target the bulk of the tumour in addition to any residual cancer stem cells then we can potentially circumvent progression and indeed recurrence of disease.

Left to right: Dr Graham Cotton, Senior R&D Group Leader, Almac Discovery; Prof Tim Harrison, Vice President Discovery Chemistry, Almac Discovery; Prof Tracy Robson, Head of Molecular & Cellular Therapeutics, RCSI; Dr Gillian Moore, postdoctoral researcher (Robson Group); Seamus Browne, RCSI Head of Industry Partnerships; Dr Stephanie Annett, postdoctoral researcher (Robson Group).

Ovarian cancer is one of the top ten most common cancers in women and is associated with a poor prognosis, primarily due to the late presentation of disease. In the coming months, the next stage in the clinical trial of ALM201 will involve the treatment of a cohort of ovarian cancer patients. Recent, unpublished preclinical data in the Robson group has indicated promising anti-cancer stem cell efficacy of ALM201 in the ovarian cancer setting. I am interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that underpin this observed anti-cancer stem cell activity of ALM201. A new phase of academic research funding from ALMAC Discovery will enable us to carry out this work. While the specific targeting of ovarian cancer stem cells is a relatively new research field, it has potential to provide much needed alternate treatment options for this aggressive tumour type and may have implications for other malignancies.

It’s great to be part of MCT at RCSI and I’m looking forward to sharing our research findings as the project develops.

Microcalcifications in breast cancer: Exploring their molecular formation and biological significance

MCT Research Talks – 23th January 2017

Survival rates for breast cancer have risen significantly over the past few decades, in large part due to a considerable increase in the number of tumours detected via mammography at an early, more easily-treated stage. The presence of microcalcifications on a mammogram constitutes an important diagnostic clue to radiographers, with approximately 30% of invasive breast tumours and up to 90% of cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) being detected by the presence of calcifications. Some studies have also suggested that the presence of calcifications may act as a prognostic factor, as patients presenting with breast tumours with associated calcifications have a worse prognosis than those without.
Despite their importance in breast cancer diagnosis, the exact mechanism by which microcalcifications are formed remains largely unexplored. Our group previously established the first in vitro model of mammary cell microcalcification (1) which we have recently extended to the human the breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231. When cultured with a cocktail of osteogenic-reagents for a prolonged period, these cells produce deposits of calcium phosphate.

Figure 1. Alizarin Red S stained MDA-MB-231 cell monolayer, grown in DMEM (Control) or DMEM supplemented with osteogenic cocktail and dexamethasone (OC+Dex). Red staining indicates presence of calcified deposits.

Using a combination of histological staining, quantitative measurement of calcium content, alkaline phosphatase activity and analysis of gene expression, we can monitor the changes in cell phenotype leading to onset of mineralisation. The nature of our model allows for easy manipulation of cell culturing conditions and by adding various inhibitory compounds or cytokines to our culture media, we can identify the key pathways and targets necessary for calcification production. In doing so, we hope to build up a comprehensive understanding of the cellular and molecular basis underlying the formation of these important diagnostic clues.

Recommended reading:

Cox RF, Hernandez-Santana A, Ramdass S, McMahon G, Harmey JH, Morgan MP.  Microcalcifications in breast cancer: novel insights into the molecular mechanism and functional consequence of mammary mineralisation. Br J Cancer. 106(3):525-37 PMID: 22233923 (Jan 2012)

Shane O’Grady, Maria Morgan