By Jason Saunders Williams, PHD STUDENT AND TEACHING ASSOCIATE, Bangor University
‘This unique advanced lecture course, Molecular Mechanisms in Signal Transduction and Cancer, brought together leaders in signal transduction research and PhD students from across the globe. The course, held in Spetses, Greece in August 2015, had an intense schedule of lectures, with researchers first going back to the basics of how they made their seminal discoveries and later describing their current research.
Among the speakers was the understated and bearded Professor Tony Hunter (Salk Institute for Biological Studies, USA), who discovered that tyrosine phosphorylation is a fundamental mechanism for transmembrane-signal transduction, an important discovery in 1979 that proved to be a paradigm shift in our understanding of how cancer cells respond to growth signals from their extracellular environment. What struck me most about this eminent scientist was his humility when sitting down to lunch amongst the PhD students and listening to what each one had to say. Science can be a world full of egos and big personalities but Tony manages to debunk this attitude and inspired many of us who attended the conference to continue our pursuit of a career in science. As well as talking about his early work, Tony discussed his recent discovery that histone phosphorylation is an important regulator of cell signalling.
Professor Mike Hall (University of Basel, Switzerland), a pioneer in the field of TOR signalling, spoke firstly about the link between the royal jelly fed to the queen bee to mTOR signalling, which has emerged as a key signalling pathway that enables cancer cells to sense nutrient, oxygen and energy levels. He also spoke about his own journey from basic to translational research; having made his career-defining discoveries in yeast he now works regularly with surgeons and showed us a picture of him in theatre with a surgeon taking a liver needle biopsy.
Professor René Bernards (Netherlands Cancer Institute, Netherlands) spoke candidly about the challenges of getting the pharmaceutical industry to license a combination therapy and suggested that a possible solution would be to try to repurpose drugs that are out of patent. From his lectures, I learnt of both the scientific and political challenges facing scientists attempting to provide the best solution for patients. René had some fairly radical views on the future of cancer therapy, claiming that cancer would become a chronic disease like AIDS in the next two decades, with the possibility of treating the patient, waiting for resistance to develop, sequencing the patients genome, transcriptome, proteome, and phosphoproteome, then treating the patients evolved tumour with a new combination of targeted therapies. He also predicted that it would be possible to detect circulating tumour cells in the foreseeable future.
As well as learning the scientific stories of these scientists and gaining invaluable insights from them, I was fortunate to be able to show them my results in a poster presentation.
In particular I was eager to show my results to Madelon Maurice of the Hans Clevers lab, The Netherlands. This group has pioneered the growth of organoids (microscopic organs which can be grown in culture). As our group is a small lab with limited resources, we need to collaborate with large groups like the Clevers lab to enable us to further investigate the observations we have made with the toolset available to us. Since the conference in Spetses, we are now in the process of acquiring these organoids from the Clevers lab. They will enable us to establish the mechanism by which our gene of interest acts in the enteroendocrine cells of the human gut. I was also lucky to meet Professor Karen Vousden (Beatson Institute, Scotland), a leading expert in the field of cancer metabolism. Our group recently observed that our gene of interest could regulate amino acid metabolism, and we are now going to send Karen our data as she is excited to collaborate with us.
Each day was concluded with discussions on the beach or meet-the-experts sessions. This was an opportunity for PhD students to ask researchers anything we wanted. I learnt many new fundamental scientific questions which have yet to be answered, for example; why do cancer cells die in culture when treated with a targeted therapy while normal cells simply exit the cell cycle and ‘wait’ until the drug insult has ended to re-enter the cell cycle and start dividing again?
Many interesting scientific challenges were addressed on the beach, including the importance of basic research and translational research in oncology. Professor Boudewijn Burgering (UMC Utrecht, The Netherlands) was extremely cynical about some of the literature and talked about the stark reality of confirmation bias in science today, he spoke about how he would prefer to trust a computer program to guide him where to research next rather than trawl through some of the literature. I understood his frustrations having read many papers reporting spurious results. This discussion in particular gave me a more realistic view of science that will change the way I criticise literature and the way it guides my experiments.
The Biochemical Society provided me with this grant to pay for my accommodation and conference. Attending this career-changing conference would not have been possible without the society’s help. I have made lifelong friends and collaborators and now have new idols to aspire to!
I would like to dedicate this report to Professor Chris Marshal (Institute of Cancer Research, UK), co-discoverer of the NRAS oncogene and regularly invited speaker to this conference, a caring and compassionate scientist who inspired many of today’s leaders in signal transduction research.’