TCRN Travel story | Frances Byrne 2017 R2 Conference & Professional Development Grant

29 September 2017
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Frances Byrne has recently attended the Immunometabolism and Chronic Disease (IMCD) Conference as part of her professional development in order to present her poster, share insights and collaborate with others her field.

Please read the interview below to find out more about her valuable messages from her experience at the conference.


Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your research? 

I’m a Lecturer/Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at UNSW and have more than 10 years’ experience as a cancer researcher. My research goals are to identify and target the molecular mechanisms underpinning cancer cell growth and metastasis. During my PhD at the Children’s Cancer Institute (Kavallaris Lab) I discovered a protein that helped cancer cells move and metastasize, specifically in the aggressive childhood cancer, neuroblastoma. My postdoctoral studies started in the laboratory of Dr Kyle Hoehn at the University of Virginia (USA), investigating the role of glucose metabolism in endometrial cancer growth. In 2014, I received a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Hope Funds for Cancer Research (USA) before returning to UNSW. My current research objectives are to; 1) determine how obesity contributes to the development of endometrial cancer, and 2) identify metabolic signatures unique to cancer cells to help guide the development of cancer-targeted therapies.


Could you tell us about the conference you went to and why you chose to attend this conference?  (What is unique, unusual or particularly important about it?)

The major goal of the Immunometabolism and Chronic Disease (IMCD) Conference was to highlight cutting edge research in the field of cancer- and immuno-metabolism that may pave the way to developing better treatments and to decrease the social and economic burden of diseases associated with metabolic dysfunction in the Asia Pacific Region. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that immune cells (e.g. T cells and macrophages) alter their metabolism to kill cancer cells. Vice versa, cancer cells fight back by altering their intrinsic metabolism to avoid immune cell surveillance. My area of expertise is cancer metabolism, and I chose to attend this conference to learn more about immunometabolism.


What would be the most important outcomes of the conference for you – key learnings, or people you met, new collaboration, etc.

Recent advances in cancer immunotherapy have translated into promising results for cancer patients. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) named immunotherapy the clinical cancer advance for 2017. One important outcome of the IMCD conference for me was to learn the latest research in the field of immune cell metabolism. The conference really made me appreciate how a systemic anti-cancer therapy targeting metabolism could also impact immune cell function. Therefore, development of new anticancer therapies should also be designed to lack any negative impact on immune cell functions, especially those that help eradicate cancer cells. Fortunately, it was a small conference and I could discuss my research at length with top scientists from all over the world. I met one scientist who works with a very similar mouse model of cancer that I have and these discussions gave me new insight and ideas for my project. The conference has helped me to reshape future experiments and manuscripts that are in preparation.


Could you tell us about your presentation at the conference?

My poster presentation at the IMCD conference showcased my research on the discovery of a novel molecule that changes the way cancer cells metabolise glucose and subsequently leads to their death. Importantly, this molecule is not toxic to normal cells which indicates that it may have less off-target toxicity compared to current chemotherapy agents. I have now started testing it for its effects on immune cell function.



Were there any new knowledge or strategies from the conference you found interesting and possibly an interest of other TCRN members?

One hot topic of the conference was the role of the metabolite itaconate in the regulation of macrophage function. Itaconate accumulates in activated macrophages but acts as an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory molecule to limit the degree of macrophage activation. Modulation of itaconate levels may be a way to modulate macrophage activity against cancer cells.


How can your research translate into improvements in patient care and clinical outcomes (Translational relevance)?

Many chemotherapy drugs have serious off-target side effects that severely impact patient quality of life during and following treatment. This highlights an urgent need to identify new drugs that can selectively target cancer cells, with little or no toxicity to healthy tissues. A feature that distinguishes cancer cells from normal cells is their ability to metabolise glucose differently than normal cells. This unique feature may render them vulnerable to drugs that target this type of metabolism. Therefore, I performed a drug screen to identify novel molecules that target glucose metabolism and are selectively toxic to cancer cells. The lead molecule from this screen was the focus of the research I presented at this meeting. It is hoped that this molecule, and other molecules that I am developing, will be potent anti-cancer agents but also improve the quality of life of cancer patients by reducing toxic side effects.


Could you tell us about your membership with the TCRN – what’s your involvement, how long have you been a member etc.?

I joined the TCRN in 2014 after returning from a 2.5-year postdoc at the University of Virginia. Since then, the TCRN has helped me establish strong collaborations with gynaecological oncologists and pathologists to advance my research investigating the link between obesity and endometrial cancer. Since becoming a member, I have participated in a TCRN-hosted consumer review process where I presented a grant application to their Consumer Advisory Panel (CAP). It was at these meetings I met Mary Potter (an endometrial cancer survivor) and Jeff Cuff (founder of the Shirley Cuff Cancer Research Foundation). Both have helped me with grant applications and provided invaluable insight into the broader implications of my research. Jeff is now a valuable member of our lab, and is now testing some of my novel anti-cancer molecules in colon cancer cells.


You received funding to attend the conference – could you tell us about the difficulties of obtaining funding for these sorts of activities and how the TCRN fills a need?

In this tough funding climate (and as a postdoc who just finished a fellowship) there are few opportunities outside of the annual grant funding rounds to support our research. I was therefore delighted that the TCRN supported my research by providing the funds to travel to the IMCD meeting! Vinaka! (Fijian for thank you!).