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Shining Star Series: 3

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all of us in some way. At Cancer Research Wales, the pandemic has resulted in our income dropping by around 50%, which means that we have less to invest into cancer research for the years ahead. 

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Today, we’re chatting to Professor Alan Parker and Alicia Teijeira Crespo. Their research focuses on using viruses to develop new therapies for cancer. Like many of us, they’ve had to find new ways of working to ensure their cancer research progresses, but have also been able to put their skills and expertise with viruses to good use, to help in the response to Covid-19.

Hi Alan & Alicia! Can you start by telling us a bit about your Cancer Research Wales funded projects?

Alicia: My PhD research combines virotherapy and immunology to develop a new ‘weapon’ to treat bowel cancer. Although viruses can cause diseases, they can also be manipulated in a way that leaves them harmless overall, but specifically trained to attack cancer cells. Also, as many people know, immunotherapy has a really good outcome in a huge range of cancer patients, as the main target is to help our own immune system to recognise and eliminate cancer cells. We are combining these approaches, to change an adenovirus so that not only would it kill cancer cells, but also boost our immune system to detect cancer cells and eliminate them.

Alan: Alicia’s PhD is just one of two projects in our lab that is presently funded by CRW. The other is a postdoctoral position looking to develop new therapies for that most devastating of cancers, pancreatic cancer. The postdoc working on this project actually left to take a more senior position in Arizona just before lockdown, so the project has been on hold. Although it is never a good time for us to lose a highly valued member of the team, the coincidental pause in this project can be seen as fortuitous in the sense that it prevented loss of progress on the project or any requirement to furlough staff.

If there was ever a good time for a project to be put on hold, this was it! Alicia, how has your research work been affected by Covid-19?

Alicia: I have to admit that at the beginning of the first lockdown, part of me appreciated my time working from home! Most of our work is lab-based, but there is also a ‘paperwork’ part. When the lockdown started, I focused on analysing the data obtained during my first months as a PhD student. Sometimes when you are in the lab, you focus on doing your experiments and spend only a little time analysing your results. Working from home gave me the opportunity to not only go through all the data and analyse it properly, but also enough time to start writing up my results. Also, because I had time to reflect on what we have achieved so far, I could also plan our next steps and design the experiments better. I was also able to write a review with some of the team, and in collaboration with the Gallimore-Godkin research group here in Cardiff.

As well as continuing with as much cancer research as possible, how did things change for the Parker Lab during the lockdown period?

Alan: I must admit that initially, I was worried about my students and staff, our research, and how we would ever get things back on track again. After a few days my mind had cleared, and I became determined that we shouldn’t sit back and do nothing and wait for this to pass, and had a moral obligation that we should channel our expertise positively to help in the pandemic. We rapidly developed a proposal to use or skills and expertise to develop coronavirus vaccines and nominated a handful of essential staff to take this forwards. This is work we continue to do, but are gradually now managing to hand over to working with new staff who are expert immunologists.

We’ve all had to balance working from home with family or other commitments – for lots of us, our physical and mental health has taken a bit of a back seat. Can you say a bit about your solution to this lockdown problem?

Alan: I wanted to find another way to keep the group engaged whilst working from home, and to try and help out our funders who, it was clear, were going to be badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. That led me to set up the Baton4Cancer fundraising initiative, which has been running since. To keep the team fit in body and mind, we agreed to kick start the initiative by running 1000 miles in May to raise funds for Tenovus and CRW. This really was tiring but a great challenge! It gave all the team something positive to focus on and keep us sane, and fit. In the end we ran over 1500 miles and raised over £4500.

Alicia: I´m not a runner at all but I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot and proved to myself that even if it is not the way we want, there is always a way to help, and with just a little bit of effort altogether we can make a big difference. What has been the most surprising thing about your experience as scientists during a global pandemic?

Alan: Overwhelmingly, what I have been astonished by is the speed of progress and understanding of this virus. As the bells tolled midnight on New Year, we were only just hearing about this new virus. 9 months on we know a huge amount about it’s biology, structure and pathogenicity, as well as vaccines and antivirals undergoing late phase clinical assessments. This is remarkable, and testament to what can be achieved by a scientific community working in unison.

Alicia: I agree – science will never stop surprising me. Usually what we are told is that the development of new vaccines and drugs etc takes a lot of time. With Covid-19 it’s astonishing the amount of information we’ve got in just months, just because everyone is trying to do their best to understand this virus. It’s amazing how far humans can go and what they are able to do.

Do you think you will be able to apply anything you’ve learned during this period to your cancer research?

Alan: It is likely that much of what we learn about the immune response to coronavirus infection can, and will, be applied in the context of cancer immunotherapy also. Many of the most significant breakthroughs in cancer immunology and immunotherapies over recent times have stemmed from fundamental observations around how the body responds to pathogen infections. What we learn about how the body responds to coronavirus infection and how vaccines protect (or fail to) can equally be applied in the context of manipulating and enhancing the body’s immune response to malignantly transformed cells and developing more potent anti-cancer vaccines. I am hugely optimistic about where we are, and the potential for developing “trained” viruses for cancer applications in the clinic moving forwards. In fact, developing these plans and working how to translate our pre-clinical work into a clinical trial is one area I can honestly say I have made progress in whilst we have been away from the lab.