Our new ‘thematic’ MCT Research Seminar Series was launched on November 8th with the opening talks on ‘Omics in Disease Diagnosis and Therapy’. The aim of the new format, with presentations spanning several research groups and diseases to facilitate knowledge exchange and foster cross-collaboration.
Dr Sudipto Das – Genomic and epigenomic approaches as a vital discovery platform
The talk broadly focused on various genomic and epigenomic platforms that have been established in the lab enabling us to interrogate the various alterations that underpin disease-associated features. Using specific clinical case examples, the talk demonstrated how the whole genome, exome and shallow sequencing have allowed us to further our understanding about atypical clinical presentation of known cancer types. Furthermore, the application of targeted methylation sequencing on FFPE tissue and it’s further utilization to stratify metastatic colorectal and heart failure patients using deep learning approaches was also explained.
Dr Katie Benson – Integrating Genomics into the Clinical Care Pathway
Next-generation sequencing is quickly replacing single gene tests in clinical practice. The integration of these genomic tests has been slow as a result of barriers including data processing and interpretation, handling of incidental findings, storage of data and access to genetics services and clinical geneticists. The Epilepsy Lighthouse project, building on the success of the epilepsy electronic patient record (EPR), has used eHealth technologies to facilitate the integration of genomics results into the epilepsy clinic. This has facilitated multidisciplinary team discussions of patients and their genomics results. As part of this project, we have sequenced 97 adult and paediatric Irish epilepsy patients and successfully provided a genetic diagnosis in 24% of cases.
Dr Chiara DeSanti – MicroRNA function in health and disease
Since the sequencing of the human genome back in 2001, non-coding RNAs have been shown to play a critical role in regulating gene expression at a transcriptional, post-transcriptional and translational level. Among the several classes of non-coding RNAs, our group is interested in microRNAs (miRNAs), small non-coding RNA molecules (18-25 nt in length) firstly discovered in C.elegans as negative regulator of gene expression through binding to the 3’untranslated region (UTR) of a target mRNA and inhibiting its translation and/or leading to mRNA degradation. MiRNAs expression was found altered in all human diseases so far, where they have been proposed as diagnostic/prognostic biomarkers and as key players in the pathogenic process itself due to their pleiotropic ability to bind hundreds of mRNAs simultaneously. Therefore, it’s hugely important to define true miRNAs::mRNAs interactions to understand their biological role and the pathways that they affect, in the overall aim of designing therapeutic strategies to enhance or block miRNAs. In order to do so, online target predictions is usually the first step, but experimental validation is needed to verify the in silico-predicted interaction. Several methods have been developed to address this issue, and they can be indirect (i.e. transcriptomic and proteomic changes are measured after over-expression/depletion of a miRNA), or direct (i.e. miRNA::mRNA complexes are captured and physical interactions are assessed, including the RCSI-developed method called miR-CATCH). Gold standard for the validation of high-throughput screening is the luciferase assay, again routinely used in several laboratories across the College. In our group, we are focussing on the role of miR-155 in macrophage polarisation in the context of multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurodegenerative disease where proinflammatory macrophages infiltrate the central nervous system and promote chronic inflammation and damage to myelin sheath. Our hypothesis, supported by preliminary data by our PI Dr MCoy and other researchers, is that miR-155 is promoting the proinflammatory state in macrophages and therefore blocking it would reduce inflammation and alleviate disease progression. Although proof of concepts for antimiR-155 therapy have been attempted in a mouse model of MS (EAE model), we are hoping to boost its efficacy by improving the delivery to macrophages of more stable versions of antimiR-155 or target-site blockers that minimise off-targets effects.
MCT was well represented at this year’s Haematology Association of Ireland meeting in Cork. A number of PhD students and Post-docs from the Irish Centre for Vascular Biology, has their work selected for presentation at this prestigious annual meeting. Moreover, three of these presentations were awarded prizes;
Presidents Prize: Clive Drakeford, PhD student
Best Scientific Oral Presentation: Dr Sean McCluskey, PostDoc
Best Scientific Poster Presentation: Soracha Ward, PhD student
Additionally, two PhD students, Sean Patmore and Aisling Rehill, scored in the top 20% of submitted abstracts and had their work selected for oral presentations at the meeting.
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.
BPS DUNLOP PRIZE LECTURE Dr.Neeraj Dhaun (Bean), University of Edinburgh will deliver a lecture on ROLE OF THE INNATE IMMUNE SYSTEM IN HYPERTENSION AND ITS COMPLICATIONS
Thursday, 24th January 2019.
Albert Lecture Theatre 5:30pm – 6:30pm
Followed by Networking Wine Reception
The event is free but pre-registration is required
To register please follow the link:
For further information on the BPS Dunlop Prize Lecture visit www.bps.ac.uk
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.