The staff and the organisers of the event were brilliant and so accommodating. They have this wonderful sort of art installation where the public/researchers at the Crick ask "What...the one thing [they] would like to know about the human body, how disease develops or how they might be treated?" I found one I thought was very insightful from a 17 year old, "Do atoms have motives?".
The first day opened with two key note speeches from two extraordinary researchers.
The first speaker, Dr Lewis Cantley, discovered the PI3K signalling pathway (which is a big deal trust me, this is one of the biggest signalling pathways there is and it is incredibly important in cancer biology). He actually spoke about something very close to my own research. Insulin resistance (hyperinsulinemia) is a risk factor for many types of cancers. The liver, skeletal muscle etc. become resistant to insulin signalling, leading to a build up of insulin in the blood. BUT cancer cells are highly sensitive to insulin, meaning this high blood insulin environment is perfect for the cancer to grow in. Insulin itself activates pathways to make cells grow and divide. PI3K is part of the insulin signalling pathway. Dr Cantley talked about how using PI3K inhibitors (which are already being used but can become ineffective) in combination with a modified diet could help enhance PI3K inhibition for cancer treatment. And funnily enough this PI3K and metabolism subject came up a lot throughout the two and a half days, not just in the "Metabolism" session.
The second speaker was Dr. Lisa Coussens, who is a big name in cancer immune biology. Dr. Coussens spoke about the immune cells in the tumour microenvironment and how this can contribute to inflammation around tumour cells. She also spoke about how immune cell infiltration into tissue can contribute to tumour development and metastasis. Understanding the different immune cell infiltrates will help is understanding tumour development and also potential treatment.
The second day was long, very long (11 hours from arriving to leaving). The day was packed with talks and poster presentations. I won't go through every single speaker's work in detail but I will highlight some areas I found particularly interesting. My main reason for attending this conference was the session on metabolism. I have five pages of small scribbled notes in my notebook from the five talks compared to one or two for the other sessions. Not the other sessions weren't interesting. Unfortunately I can't really discuss a huge amount of what was talked about because most of the data is unpublished and you have a professional courtesy not to disclose the information.
Session 1: Metabolsim
This session really focused on how understanding metabolic processes, the metabolites that are used in these processes and the metabolites derived from those processes could help in not only understanding how tumours are formed but also how was can target these tumours as individual treatments themselves or in fact enhance current treatments. As I've said before it's been shown that different diets can enhance the effect of anti-cancer drugs.
Session 2: Tumour Microenvironment
I've talked about the tumour microenvironment (TME) before in my "What the hell? - Cancer Part 1" post. The TME is made up of a number of different cell types (immune cells, blood vessel cells etc.) which all contribute to the development, growth and spread of cancer. In this session we discussed how we can understand the interaction between the cells in the TME and cancer cells. Mainly this session focused on infiltrating immune cells (immunology is a hot topic now so it came up in pretty much every talk at some point....) but there was one talk which was very interesting about identifying mutational signatures in breast cancer that can identify the type of cancer it is, can put together cancers that may not look the same but have similar mutations and can tell you about potential treatment pathways (Serena Nik-Zainal).
Session 3: Tumour Immune system interactions
As I said immunology in cancer is a hot topic in recent years. This session focused on targeting immune cells to kill cancer. Immune cells can be pro tumour and anti-tumour depending on the signals it received. Cancer cells can send out signals that activate immune cells that dampen down the immune response while also pretending they're normal cells to immune cells that would kill them. Immune cell infiltration into the tumour can happen at different stages of tumour development and the context (I learnt) is pretty important for choosing what cells to inhibit to kill cancer cells. Interestingly the metabolism/immunology sessions combined for a talk by Luke O'Neill (a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin). While by far the most entertaining lecture he also made an interesting point about how different metabolites can be pro-inflammation or anti-inflammation. While he doesn't focus on cancer, he made the interesting point that targeting immune cells could be again achieved or enhanced by looking at the metabolism of the cell you're targeting.
Session 4: Tumour heterogeneity and evolution
The final session was a mixture in terms of biology and statistics. We had talks about cancer evolution, specifically the evolution of drug resistance (drug resistance is a big problem in all cancers) and heterogeneity of cancers. If we can understand how drug resistance occurs we could target cancer cells better so it doesn't happen. A lot of that has to with the fact that tumours can have multiple cancer cell sub-groups which have different mutations (heterogeneity). The statistics talk was interesting but I was very much out of my depth. What really fascinated me and kind of scared me was the talk on brain tumours. Basically brain tumours act like mini-brains. They form cell-to-cell connections through micro-tubules. This tubes allow the cell mass to become more resilient to therapy (e.g. radiation) and also allow repair of damaged parts of the cell network (which brains do not do). Frank Winkler showed videos of the brain tumour cells and even compared them to normal brain cell connections. While scary to know, this is brilliant for brain tumour biology and treatment. Recurrence is common in brain tumours and these tubules could help give an answer as to why. And they could be something that can be targeted. More work needs to be done but that talk was brilliant.
I first want to explain what a poster session is for those who don't know. Basically you submit a short description of your work and if you're chosen you create a poster (A2) to demonstrate what your work. The more figures the better. You then have an opportunity to stand beside the poster and chat to any interested person who comes along. I want to thank the people who happily stood and answered my weird questions about their work. You're very patient humans. I want to say I went and talked to everyone about their posters (there were 74 by the way) but I hunted out the epigenetics posters and ones that really interested me. I chatted with Tim Fenton from UCL, James Heward from Barts and Neil Slaven from Imperial. I can't really tell you what we talked about because their work is unpublished but needless to say it was very interesting.
All I all it was a really interesting conference, if not a a small bit tiring. My only problem with the conference as a whole was the very small representation from the area of epigenetics. Some speakers mentioned epigenetics (one even had a little data) and there were a few posters on the subject but it was distinctly lacking. I know that's the area I'm in so I am very biased and obviously it was hard enough to fit all the talks they had already into the two and a half day schedule, but it was missed. It may not be the area that solves all the problems (my PhD title will of course be "I cured cancer with epigenetics, everyone can go home now") but it provides a key piece in the puzzle. It's something I hope the organisers will consider for the next Crick International Cancer Conference.
Other than that the 1st Crick International Cancer Conference was worth attending and I learnt some interesting (and terrifying) stuff.
You may (or may not) have noticed that my blog has been all but quiet and desolate the last three months. This is completely my fault and an unconscious act of neglect. There are two main reasons why I have been so absent and hopefully I can give you many excuses to explain these reasons while also updating you on my progress.
The first reason is work. In mid-August I had what's known here as a Late Stage Review (LSR). This is something all Imperial PhD students are required to do in order to complete their PhD. The aim is to present your results and future plans after around 2 years of doing your PhD. You make up a report and do a presentation for two examiners. They judge your work and your ability to complete your PhD and sign you off. Usually they don't fail people (there is always the possibility) and the idea is for them to give you ideas for finishing your thesis and focusing your work. Obviously you want to present as much good data as possible. Hence the absence beforehand. I spent all my time writing the report and generating as much data as I could. All in all the LSR went fine. My work is satisfactory enough to continue. However I am not going to lie I was disappointed afterwards. I thought going in that they would help me narrow down and focus on the more important aspects of my project but instead I was told to "expand more to focus more". I realistically have 12 months left in the lab. This was not what I wanted to hear. I need to add more work to quite frankly an already daunting amount of work. Following from that I wanted to finish up at least one part of my project (validating my significant probes found from the DNA methylation array in another format i.e pyrosequencing). And this you will be happy to know showed...........nothing. Bupkis. Nada. I have negative results. While this is not an epic failure (as my brain wants me to believe) nor is it a triumph. Essentially what this means is I need to go back to my plan and look at the question a different way. And this is when I appreciated the LSR. Yes I needed to do more work but actually it gave me an opportunity to approach my project at a slightly different angle and who knows maybe something will work. I am now in the stages of planning and implementing that work. And who knows maybe in a few months time I will have something positive to talk about.
The other reason I have been absent is I went on a 17 day holiday. I travelled to Rome, Sicily, Dublin and Cork. It was amazing and relaxing. And I didn't have to worry about my project or stress about what I needed to do next. I even slept the whole way through a night for the first time in, well, years. It was incredible and for anyone looking for their next holiday destination I highly recommend Sicily. Get a car like we did, drive around and soak it all in. Mountains, crystal clear water, food. A must really.
And finally on a slightly different note I am taking up some teaching! An ex-member of our lab, Kirsty, is part of a team which has created a brand new innovative BSc undergraduate programme in Imperial. The course focuses on interactive learning and face-to-face teaching. It will be one of the first courses of its kind and hopefully not the last. Part of this course is to teach laboratory skills, called lab pods. I will basically be a part of a team of PhD students in these lab pods who will help guide students through techniques like cell culture and western blotting. Guide being the operative word. Unlike traditional teaching labs where I would show them what to do and answer all of their questions for them, this lab aims to make scientists. So I am really there to watch and provide last resort help. The idea is that the students will get a protocol, read through it and do the experiment. If it goes wrong then they have to figure out why. Exactly like anyone working in a lab would. Besides having a master student, I haven't really taught before so this is a new and exciting experience! Terrifying (especially when you realise you're about 10 years older than they are) but exciting.
And that's what I've been doing. hopefully I will be a bit more dedicated to the blog and I can keep you updated on my work, my teaching experience and also complete a few posts (such as my "What the Hell? - Cancer" series).
Btw I am not quitting this PhD any time soon in case you were worried.
My name is Caitriona and I am a PhD student at Imperial College London, UK.