2020 has certainly been tough, and no industry has been left untouched by the effects of the pandemic. And while the same undoubtedly goes for our work, we’ve once again been inspired by the resilience and determination of our researchers, who have continued their lifesaving work despite the ongoing challenges and are adjusting to a ‘new normal’.
We spoke to 4 of our researchers based in Manchester, working across a broad spectrum of cancer research – from technology and robotics to inflammation – about working through the pandemic, and what the new year may hold.
Dr Julia Morris, who works in a southerly suburb of the famous Northern City at the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, spent the last year working to understand the complex behaviour of ovarian cancer, with the help of unique living biobank.
And 13 miles south in a leafy part of Cheshire sits our Manchester Institute, based at the innovative Alderley Park Research Centre. Here, Steve Bagley oversees some of the leading-edge technology used by our researchers. In that same Institute, Charlotte Bell is finishing the final year of her PhD, focussing on the role of inflammation and cancer, while down the corridor, Professor Tim Somervaille is leading a group who are making great strides in the development of a new treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia.
Dr Julia Morris: “The lab is showing really great resilience despite everything”
Dr Julia Morris is a part of Professor Stephen Taylor’s lab at the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, where work on ovarian cancer centres around an extraordinary living biobank of ovarian cancer samples.
“We receive samples from patients before, during and after their treatment. So it’s like we are studying their cells in real time. We observe how they respond to drugs, how the cancers cells grow and what they look like,” says Morris. Members of the lab extract these cells and grow them and maintain them, keeping them alive under artificial conditions.
Morris joined the Taylor lab back in January, studying if it’s possible to sensitise cancer cells to certain treatments by experimenting with different drug combinations. And so far, she’s loved it. “We’re very close-knit lab, which was lovely to come into. We would always eat lunch together and enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other all day.”
But all that stopped in March, as the country went into a national lockdown and both the Institute and the Manchester Cancer Research Centre were closed. Before the doors closed, the team quickly froze all the cells that make up the living ovarian biobank, to make sure they would be preserved. “We weren’t growing any new cells over lockdown, because we didn’t have access to the building. And so in that sense, we did lose a big chunk of time and potential data, but it is what it is, we couldn’t have avoided that.”
And when lockdown began, Morris’ day-to-day role changed very suddenly. “My work, rather than looking like a being a practical postdoc in the lab, turned into doing lots more analysis, reading and hypothesising about various projects.”
With the lab closed, Morris was furloughed for a couple of months during lockdown and instead spent some of her time volunteering at one of the COVID-19 Lighthouse Labs.
“It was really intense, but at the same time, I’m really glad that I got a chance to contribute to our fight against COVID-19.” As soon as they were able to, some of Morris’s colleagues went back in the lab and were able to unfreeze the cell lines and get them growing again. “It’s just like pressing play after pausing the growth of your cells,” says Morris.
“We’re back up to where we were pre pandemic now, and we’re receiving samples again from the Christie, which is great.
“The lab is showing really great resilience and despite everything, we were awarded grant this year and lab morale is up. It’s been it’s been a tough year, but I’m really proud of everyone who is a part of our lab.”
For next year, Morris is looking forward to wrapping up several of her experiments from 2020. “I am also looking forward to getting a paper out hopefully, about my drug combination studies, and excited to eventually be starting a new project.”
Steve Bagley: “It’s a case of having to adapt”
As well as the scientists like Morris who work in the labs, our Centres and Institutes are fuelled by a whole host of expert teams who help to run things behind the scenes. Steve Bagley is one of those experts.
“Our team covers not just microscopes, but also things like imaging and high content screening, looking for new drugs and biomarker discovery.” explains Steve. “So we run a whole lot of equipment that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a microscope laboratory, a lot of automation and a lot of robots, to get through the samples as fast as possible.”
The team’s remit seems to get larger every year, as researchers at the Institute ask more and more complex questions.
Currently, the team is working alongside many different research groups across the Institute. And pressing pause isn’t that easy.
“With the equipment we use, when you turn things off, things can deteriorate,” says Bagley. “An X-ray machine, for example, if that’s not run on almost a daily basis, then the generator starts to deteriorate. And that’s a £50,000 repair bill. And we’ve got lots of instruments like that, that are designed to be run all the time and you can’t turn them off.”
When the Institute was closed down, Bagley was frequently going into the labs, “checking the systems, calibrating them, standardising them and making sure they were right.
“But as I was doing that there was this call amongst the 3D printing community about how to help with the lack of PPE.”
Bagley and the team have 3D printing facilities which they use for making certain lab parts that aren’t available commercially. “And what we realised quite quickly is that the band that goes around the head, if we could print those, then the shield part itself could be any form of clear plastic.”
The system the team have has a high throughput, so at one point, Bagley was producing 40-50 of the head bands a day. “The first batch went to the Christie here in Manchester, but later we sent them to other NHS departments around the country.”
Since PPE demands began to decline, the team have turned their focus back to their own work. “We’ve lost a huge amount of time in our research, so now it’s about trying to catch up again.”
Right now, labs at the Institute are only at 20% occupancy in order to adhere to social distancing, but samples are coming thick and fast “We’ve scanned 12,000 histology slides since opening back up in the summer.” This impressive volume of work has been made possible as lots of the equipment, including microscopes and analysis software, can be set up from home.
As well as keeping on top of the samples, Bagley is also involved in designing a new laboratory for his team, after part of the Institute burnt down in 2017. “The new laboratory has been designed for automation. So it’s actually designed for more robots, and we kind of see that this is the way to carry on,” says Bagley.
“We’ve learnt some really valuable lessons from COVID. I think one of them is that we want to follow this path of image analysis and using artificial intelligence. It allows people to work, wherever they can from home, or they could even be at a conference, but they can still make sure their analysis is being done.”
Charlotte Bell: “It’s still quite far from normal”
Charlotte Bell is completing the final year of her PhD, working in Santiago Zelenay’s lab at the Manchester Institute.
“As a lab, we’re really interested in how what we call ‘different flavours’ of inflammation can impact tumour growth, with a focus on the immune response to cancer,” says Bell.
Bell is focusing on how inflammation affects cancer cells in the context of anti-cancer drugs. “I’ve been looking a lot at chemotherapy or cytotoxic treatments, and how they can impact inflammation within tumours.”
As the national lockdown was looming over the Institute back in March, Bell and the rest of the lab rushed to finish off whatever experiments they could in the remaining few days. “Apart from that, we very quickly had to freeze down all of our cell lines, to try and minimise the impact that it would have on our experiments,” says Bell. “Luckily, we didn’t lose anything.”
And while some members of the lab were able to go in while the lab was shut to look after experiments that were being carried out on mouse models, most worked from home. “The pandemic has shone a light on the teamwork element of our lab” says Bell. “Normally, we would all kind of go in and do our own little bits, but I think working as a team and helping each other with experiments has been a big, big asset for us lately.”
Over the lockdown, Bell analysed data from the previous few months and prepared for her next experiments. Thankfully, when she finally returned to the lab, she was able to pick up her work quite easily. “Cancer cells are obviously quite resilient, so getting them back up and growing again isn’t too difficult”.
But while getting started has been straightforward, it’s not been quick.
“We’ve really had to restrict the number of people that can go in certain rooms and certain labs. Because of that we really have to plan our time and really organise how we are doing experiments. It’s still quite far from normal, I think, but it’s workable.”
Bell is due to finish her PhD next September, although it’s possible that her studies may be extended by a further 6 months. “I am hoping that might be the case for me, because it would be good to just have a bit more time working on my project. Then after that, I am really hoping to do a postdoc.”
Prof Tim Somervaille: ‘We’ve all been working hard to make the best out of a difficult situation’
Prof Tim Somervaille is a clinician scientist who splits his time between the hospital and the lab. He works on myeloid blood cancers such as acute myeloid leukaemia. He is a group leader at our Manchester Institute.
“I’m a clinician for a quarter of the week and a scientist for the rest the week,” says Somervaille. “I treat my patients at The Christie hospital and I lead my research group in the CRUK Manchester Institute. Somervaille’s lab works to understand the biology of blood cancers, so that new treatments can be developed and advanced into the clinic.
Despite disruptions, Somervaille’s lab has got a lot done this year. “A really good news story for us has been that we published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Oncology,” says Somervaille. “It is a report of a Phase 1 clinical trial of a drug called iadademstat which is a type of LSD1 inhibitor which we have evaluated as a possible treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia.”
And according to Somervaille, it’s the culmination of nearly a decade of research- from early cell studies in his lab in Manchester to the latest clinical trial.
But more importantly, it’s contributed to significant interest worldwide from numerous pharmaceutical companies, who are actively exploring the LSD1 target in a variety of clinical settings.
But despite this impressive progress, the pandemic brought up many challenges for the lab.
“We didn’t have very much notice. And, you know, everybody’s experiments just had to be terminated,” he says. “It’s been very difficult. Students were anxious about their remaining time to complete their PhDs and postdocs have been worried about their grant funding running out. And for pretty much three and a half, nearly four months, it was not possible to go into the laboratory to do any work at all.”
Since the lab has opened back up again, the Somervaille group has been slowly but surely returning to the work they were doing pre-pandemic. And they’re very much looking forward to next year. “I think we’ve all been working hard to make the best out of a difficult situation. But what I’m looking forward to next year is things getting back to normal, so that we can drive forward our programme of translational research, including a number of exciting projects using leading edge technologies to understand some fundamental mechanisms of leukaemia
“That’s what gets me up in the morning, to push things forward. So that, you know, in the longer term, hopefully, patients will benefit from the insights from the studies that we’re all involved in and which are funded by Cancer Research UK.”