Cancer Research Wales PhD Students Share Their Research on the Worlds Big Stage

Catarina Menezes and Peter Henley.


We have recently been fortunate enough to have the chance to attend the American Society of Haematology Annual Meeting 2019 (ASH 2019) in Orlando, Florida as part of our CRW funded PhD studentships. This presented us with two fantastic opportunities: firstly, to experience the world’s largest haematology conference and see the exciting research being conducted around the world in this area; and secondly to present our own work and gain insight and feedback from experts in our respective fields. With over 20,000 delegates attending the conference it was really inspiring to feel part of, and contribute to, a huge global scientific community.

CATARINA:

During my PhD in Cardiff I have been studying the normal development of blood cells and the pathogenesis of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Luckily for me there were many interesting talks to attend that could help me to better understand my project and give me new ideas to bring back to the laboratory. My ASH schedule was so busy that for the first 2 days I barely saw my colleagues! I listened to some fascinating presentations about the mechanisms of blood development, mutations and the origins of AML and bone marrow environment and metabolism, as well as novel research techniques such as single-cell multiomics.

There was also great interest in AML therapy, with an exciting educational session covering approved and investigational FLT3 inhibitors, as well as single-agent and combination biologics in AML. One thing I was surprised with and really excited to attend were the events focused on trainees. The day before ASH officially started, my fellow PhD colleagues and I attended the ASH-a-Palooza event where we had the opportunity to listen to successful researchers talking about their career paths and giving advice for the future. I also attended some workshops covering how best to present my data, as well as asking and answering questions with a big audience (which still terrifies me!).

The highlight of ASH 2019 for me wasn’t a specific talk or topic, but undoubtedly the opportunity to share my work internationally to a vast scientific community with experts in haematology, along with the networking involved. It was so nice to finally meet some of the scientists I admire within the field and to get their feedback and useful tips and advice for the future! I have to admit I was nervous in the beginning, but after the first handshake everything felt natural and science was all I cared about!

PETER:

My PhD project involves research into the role of the immune system in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), so I was delighted that there was a lot of research into CLL presented at ASH 2019, with speakers from many different countries sharing their work.

A key question in CLL is what the best treatment strategies are for individual patients, given the plethora of drugs available to clinicians. To this end, the results from a large number of clinical trials testing different combinations of treatments were presented and some of these showed real promise for enhancing patients’ long-term survival.

Another key theme from my conference experience was the huge interest in Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells and other immunotherapies. With the first ever patient in Wales having recently received CAR T cell therapy, this was a perfect time to learn more about this exciting topic. Many talks focused on our understanding of exactly how these immunotherapies work in the human body and whether we can use this information to improve them, with the possibly in future that we may be able to cure some patients of their leukaemia.

My personal highlight was a talk introducing a new type of drug called PROTACs (PROteolysis-TArgeting Chimeras). These small molecules employ the cancer cell’s own machinery to destroy target proteins and prevent growth of the cancer. This new concept may help to overcome drug-resistant cancers and opens up a large number of new strategies to target different cancer types.

Our trip to Orlando was not totally science-focused and we also had the chance to visit a few local tourist attractions. A particular highlight was the Kennedy Space Centre, home to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing craft and the Space Shuttle Atlantis among many other exhibits. We were also very lucky to enjoy glorious sunshine and warm temperatures throughout our stay, a pleasant contrast to the usual December weather in South Wales!

Overall, our visit to Orlando was richly rewarding and motivating and we’re grateful to CRW for helping to fund such a wonderful opportunity.