Shining Stars Series: 2
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.
This Christmas, we must keep the spotlight on cancer – for Wales, for cancer patients, and for the future. In our latest blog mini-series, we’re hearing from some Cancer Research Wales funded scientists about how they have had to adapt their working patterns during the past few months, and what their research will look like from now on.
Research is the light in the darkness, and our researchers are our shining stars!
Today we’re hearing from Carmen Velasco Martinez. Carmen is a PhD researcher at Cardiff University, supervised by Professor Trevor Dale and Dr Paul Shaw. She is working on developing cellular methods that will allow scientists to better predict the utility of new therapies for cancer.
Hi Carmen! Please can you give us an introduction to your Cancer Research Wales funded project?
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. The type of lung cancer someone is diagnosed with determines which treatments are recommended, and the vast majority (over 85%) of lung cancer cases are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). A lot of cancer research is done using 2D cell culture – where cells are cultured on a flat surface – but cells in the body do not naturally grow in a 2D fashion. So, there is an urgent need for the development of a faithful human-derived model that can more accurately mimic the tumour biology, for oncology research and anticancer drug discovery.
My PhD project aims to establish a set of patient-derived NSCLC organoids. Organoids are 3D cell cultures derived from patient tissue samples, which more accurately mirror the cellular diversity and intercellular interactions of both cancerous and healthy tissue, compared to traditional 2D cell cultures. Alongside this, we will also use organoids as the key platform to identify cancer cell responses to radiation damage and DNA damage response inhibitors. This will allow us to more specifically target cancer cells and deliver more effective treatment for cancer patients. The organoid technology could be used in the future for both drug development and personalised medicine.
Developing organoids sounds like intensive but rewarding work. How has your research project been affected by Covid-19?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected my project in several ways. When lockdown was imminent, Cardiff University decided to stop all work in progress and close the labs, in order to protect students and staff and ensure containment of the spread of the virus.
Not only were we unable to continue running experiments in the labs, but we also weren’t able to receive any patient tissue samples, which are essential to this project. Unfortunately, we haven’t “just” lost time, but also valuable samples that we won’t be able to get back.
On the other hand, we have been encouraged to work from home as much as possible to minimise disruption to our projects. It has been a useful time to catch up with the literature in the field, which is a very important part of the research.
Apart from trying to adjust to working from home more, how has your work changed as a result of the pandemic?
Returning to work in the lab has been a bit challenging. We are currently maintaining a morning/afternoon shift system, for some areas in the lab, and this makes it difficult to get back to 100% capacity.
We don’t know when we will be able to receive any patient tissue from the hospital, which is something I was relying on to develop a larger variety of organoid lines. Although the collection of some other tissue types has been started again by the Wales Cancer Bank, collection of lung cancer samples now represents a particular challenge. Since Covid-19 affects predominantly the lungs, the ongoing effects of the pandemic makes collection of tissue samples from this organ more complicated.
We are already working on a contingency plan so that we can get patient-derived tissue from another source. Additionally, organoids are more complex structures than regular cell lines (usually used for in vitro research) and setting up new cultures, and unfreezing existing ones, will take more time to recover.
What has been your experience as a scientist during a global pandemic?
I would describe it as really stressful, but also really fulfilling. As well as trying to keep my own project going as much as possible, I used my skills to contribute to the Covid-19 response. I played an important role in organising and managing volunteers for the production of lysing buffers, key for SARS-Cov-2 testing. At the height of this activity and for a total of 3 months, the team of volunteers were responsible for producing key reagents necessary for 90% of the tests carried out in Wales.
How are you feeling about your research going forward?
Honestly, I feel a little apprehensive about the delays and challenges we face. I know that this project will need extra time to be carried out fully; but I feel positive that if I am granted this time, the research is going to be a positive and useful contribution to the biomedical sciences.
Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t stop in the middle of a pandemic, and as researchers we still need to be working on making new discoveries to improve outcomes for cancer patients in the future.
We’d like to say a huge thanks to our researchers for taking time out of their schedules to chat to us. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you can read about more of our shining stars here (#1) and here (#3).
Cancer hasn’t stopped for COVID, and it won’t stop for Christmas. With your help we can continue funding innovative research like this right here in Wales. If you’d like to make a donation, please visit: www.justgiving.com/campaign/beashiningstar
Dr Lee Campbell, Head of Research at Cancer Research Wales
“A successful cancer treatment – now that is surely a Christmas present worth giving.”