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Meet the researcher - Dr Cátia Neto

Dr Cátia Neto is a Cancer Research Wales researcher who is currently being funded for work at Cardiff University to develop 'mini brains' that allow for detailed studies of brain tumours and their surrounding environments. We asked her a series of questions to learn more about her life-changing work and the reasons behind her studies.

1. What area of cancer research do you focus on?

We are working on better understanding brain tumours and their microenvironments, looking for more effective treatments.
Tumours are composed of many cancerous and non-cancerous cells that are closely connected and dependent on their surrounding environment, forming specialized ‘tumour microenvironments’. The tumour microenvironment has a profound effect upon tumour aggressiveness, treatment responses and possible relapse. Studying cancer cells within their unique microenvironments is a step closer to fighting these devastating brain tumours.

2. What is your Cancer Research Wales project aiming to do in this area?

Our current project is to develop a new model to study brain tumours, using cells taken from patients.
Using a small blood sample, we can create ‘artificial’ stem cells (called induced pluripotent stem cells) that enable the development of an unlimited source of any type of human cell. This powerful technology allows us to develop ‘mini-brains’ in a dish, which are composed of the various cells that are present in our own brains, like neurons, astrocytes and immune cells. Then, from a small sample of the patient’s tumour, we can isolate and grow the cancer cells in our lab. At this point, we can incorporate patient tumour cells into the ‘mini-brain’, which serves as a resource for investigations, including identifying new drug targets and testing of emerging treatments.

3. Have there been any key achievements so far during the project?

During the last two years, we have developed ‘mini-brains’ with microglia cells, which are the immune cells present in the brain. We are able to track the tumour cells and the non-tumour cells at a high-resolution and in real-time, recording their behaviours. We are actively collecting the patients’ blood and tumour samples, which are stored in a bank and will be available for the research community. This model is useful not only to study brain tumours, but it is also a powerful tool to study other neurologic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and toxicology studies to understand the effect of different drugs in the brain.

4. How might your research make a difference to cancer patients in Wales?

We aim to accelerate the development of new and more efficient treatments to fight brain cancers, which are deadly tumours in Wales and worldwide.

5. Why/how did you become a Cancer Research Wales researcher?

Cancer Research Wales is fundamental to the cancer research that is taking place here in Wales. Part of the vision and strategy of Cancer Research Wales is to support the basic and translational research accelerating the cure for cancer. Fortunately, our research falls in this remit and gives the opportunity to better understand the biology of brain tumours and to be a platform to test new emerging drugs. We are greatly honoured and grateful to have our research supported by Cancer Research Wales.

6. Do you have any personal connection to cancer (relatives/friends etc)?

Sadly, most of us have someone in our family or know someone that is fighting cancer or has lost the battle with cancer. Unfortunately, I have seen friends losing their loved ones to brain tumours. It is a devastating disease that changes the patient’s personality before taking their life. The whole family suffers so much during this tragic journey. It is an honour to be able to contribute to brain tumour research and ultimately help to improve the outcome for these patients.

7. Is there anything you would like to say to our supporters?

THANK YOU! You are the ones that make our research possible. You are the superheroes fighting every day to support our projects. Together we can win the fight against cancer.