Pathological blood vessel formation (angiogenesis), or the inability of endothelial cells to perform their physiological function (endothelial dysfunction), are defining features of disease. The endothelium actively controls vessel integrity, vascular growth and remodelling, tissue growth and metabolism, immune responses, cell adhesion, angiogenesis, haemostasis and vascular permeability. It is, therefore, a vital and largely unexploited target for novel therapies.
Prof Tracy Robson’s team have identified and characterised a novel anti-angiogenic protein, FK506 binding protein like – FKBPL, significantly advancing our understanding of the anti-angiogenic process, in particular, how tumours recruit blood vessels to support their growth. This led to a collaborative study with Almac Discovery to develop therapeutic peptides based on FKBPL’s active domain to explore their potential in cancer by targeting the ability of tumours to recruit blood vessels to grow, invade and metastasise beyond the site of the primary tumour. The team are also testing the ability of these peptides to sensitise tumours to current therapies and to target cancer stem cells that lead to the onset of resistance and/or recurrent disease. Importantly, these studies led to a ‘first in man’ phase I clinical in cancer patients where the clinical candidate drug, ALM201, was very well tolerated over a wide range of doses. Prof Robson’s team (Dr Stephanie Annett and Dr Gillian Moore) will discuss this data together with new data suggesting a strong role for FKBPL in vascular endothelial dysfunction and possible implications therefore in other diseases associated with vascular disease.
Our group is a drug discovery lab currently working on the development of a novel Fc gamma receptor IIa inhibitors. FcgRIIa is a low affinity receptor for Fc portion of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and is implicated in a variety of conditions that are still mainly untreatable, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, immune thrombocytopenia, sepsis. FcgRIIa is widely expressed by human innate immune cells, and is the only Fc gamma receptor found on human platelets.
Mainly over-stimulation of the FcgRIIa receptor in these conditions that leads to the progression of the disease. For example, in sepsis the platelets get activated via FcgRIIa in response to bacteria present in the blood, which results in thrombocytopenia and disseminated immune coagulopathy. This causes, not only internal haemorrhage but also formation of blood clots that block peripheral blood vessels leading to sepsis-associated limb loss, heart attacks and/or strokes. Using a targeted approach, such as pharmacophore modelling, our group has developed a small molecule compound that effectively blocks FcgRIIa-mediated platelet aggregation in vitro. In agreement with the chosen targeted approach, this compound was shown to bind to the FcgRIIa directly and possesses specificity for the FcgRII subgroup of the Fcg receptors.
Ultimately, this compound has a great potential to be used for treatment of other FcgRIIa-mediated auto-immune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and an array of immune thrombocytopenia conditions.
Prof Dermot Cox, Dr Tatiana Devine and Padraig Norton
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
I wanted to update you on developments over the past number of weeks.
I can report that we have made progress with an application for the IAP to join the European Association for Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics (EACPT -https://www.eacpt.eu/who-we-are-2/), who responded very positively and who have said that they will put our application to their executive committee at their next meeting in April. We look forward in hope to the last blank space in Western Europe being filled in blue very soon (see: https://www.eacpt.eu/members/national-society-affiliated-to-eacpt/).
We have also applied for membership of the Federation of European Pharmacological Societies (EPHAR -http://www.ephar.org/home.html), who have also responded very positively to our initial enquiries.
We are currently working on the IAP website and expect to be able to update you on developments shortly.
In the meantime, we would very much appreciate your promoting the newly constituted IAP to those who you think would be interested in becoming members. We anticipate that the benefits will soon include membership of European federations and the opportunities for contact with European colleagues.
Prof. Thomas Walther
Irish Association of Pharmacologists
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to MCT’s blog page. Our department is based within the Royal College of Surgeon’s in Ireland (RCSI) situated on Dublin’s beautiful St Stephen’s Green. This was one of the initial attractions for my move to Dublin from Queen’s University Belfast in Aug 2016, in addition to the vibrant and innovative environment that RCSI provides, through its achievements in education and research.
Our research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of disease in order to develop and apply our findings to the identification of biomarkers and new drug targets. Our aim is to improve the diagnosis, treatment and, ultimately, prevention of disease; enabling MCT to be at the forefront of personalized medicine. With newly renovated state-of-the-art facilities, strong links with Beaumont Hospital, our clinician-scientist teams are leading therapeutic and biomarker discovery in the areas of autoimmune and inflammatory disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infection, platelet biology and neurological and psychiatric disease. This is facilitated by strong collaboration with industry allowing us to translate our findings appropriately, revolutionizing healthcare through discoveries and innovations that improve people’s lives.
I hope that you enjoy reading our blog page which seeks to capture the dynamic nature of the teaching and research environment within MCT and pays testimony to the significant accomplishments of our all of our staff and students. I hope that we can inspire you ………