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PhD candidate Croí Buckley is researching the role of cellular metabolism in the response of rectal cancer to radiation therapy

Having graduated from the Trinity College Dublin BSc Human Health & Disease degree in 2016, Croí went on to complete a masters in Translational Oncology, Department of Surgery, Trinity translational Medicine Institute (TTMI) in 2017. During her BSc and MSc experience, Croí spent some time on ERASMUS placement at the University of Göttingen, Germany and was exposed to the world of academia and oncology research. When given the opportunity to undertake a PhD with her MSc supervisors (Dr Niamh Lynam-Lennon and Professor Jacintha O’Sullivan) in 2017, Croí jumped at the chance. Currently in her final year, Croí is working on publishing her PhD findings, and has presented her work at National and International meetings as well as for non-academic audiences as part of patient and public outreach. She was a finalist for the Professor Patrick Johnston IACR Award for Excellence in Cancer Outreach in 2019.

Can you describe your research topic?
My research project focuses on the role of cellular metabolism in the response of rectal cancer to radiation therapy.

Colorectal cancer, or bowel cancer, is the 3rd most common cancer type in Ireland, with a third of bowel cancers occurring in the lower bowel (rectum). A combination treatment of chemotherapy and radiation therapy is an effective treatment strategy to reduce tumour size before surgery for some rectal cancer patients. Unfortunately, for the majority of patients this strategy is ineffective, and can have detrimental effects, including delays to surgery and therapy-associated toxicity.

Recent work in our lab demonstrated that cancer cell metabolism (how cancer cells make their energy to survive and grow) is associated with poor response to radiation therapy in oesophageal cancer. My project follows on from this research, by investigating altered energy metabolism in rectal cancer and the link between these metabolic changes and radiation resistance. We are also investigating whether we can boost poor responses to radiation therapy with drugs which affect energy metabolism, such as Metformin. Metformin is a drug commonly used to treat Type II Diabetes. We are investigating whether this drug could be repurposed as a radiosensitiser in cancer.

How do you see your work impacting healthcare in the future?
All cancer researchers aim to contribute to the shared knowledge to make a meaningful impact on the lives of cancer patients. With my project, thanks to pre-treatment blood and tissue biopsies, generously donated by patients with and without cancer, we can contribute to the growing scientific knowledge of rectal cancer and therapeutic resistance. The multi-omic profiling we are conducting on patient samples will also lay the groundwork for future pre-clinical and clinical studies in the field of GI cancers and therapeutic resistance.

Did you always want to pursue a research career?
During my undergraduate degree I was always fascinated by the work of my lecturers who worked in the field of cancer research. At this time, I had considered undertaking a PhD, but I wanted to learn more about the different research areas in oncology, as well as build my practical lab skills and experience before committing. After my Masters research placement I felt that a PhD was the perfect next step for my career, and I was delighted to continue in the Dept of Surgery, which I knew was a good work environment for me.

What do you enjoy most about your studies, and would you recommend the academic life to young student and undergraduates?
I thoroughly enjoy working in the field of cancer research. A career in research provides a wonderful outlet to combine innate curiosity and problem solving while also contributing to a very worthy cause. I enjoy the challenge of research, being presented with a problem to solve, and trying to tease out a solution (although normally this leads to even more questions to answer!).

I think that if you’re passionate about science and research, the academic route is a great option. Undertaking a PhD requires a lot of dedication and can be incredibly challenging, but it is the ultimate research training program, and can open doors outside of the world of academia. I often recommend to undergrads considering a PhD to gain as much lab experience as they can before undertaking a PhD. If you are free in summer, many labs take on undergrads during the summer, and lots of charities/funding bodies will support summer placements for undergrads. The only real way to know whether lab-based research is for you is to try it out.

What are your plans for the future?
As a final year student, my plans for the immediate future are to finish writing up my PhD thesis and supporting research papers. I would love to continue working in cancer research, perhaps branching into the growing field of immuno-oncology. I really enjoy being a part of the cancer research community in Ireland, it is a wonderful feeling to be working in an area which can have a tangible impact on the lives of cancer patients. I also plan to work abroad for a while once the world returns to ‘normal’.

When you are not working on your PhD studies, where could we find you?
More often than not, you’ll find me in the lab, but in my spare time I enjoy baking treats for my lab mates and walking/hiking in the Dublin mountains or along the seafront in Sandymount.

Who have been your supporters in your academic career?
First and foremost, at the heart of my translational research are the patients of St. James’s Hospital and the Beacon Hospital, who have so kindly and selflessly donated samples to not only my study, but also to the many Biobanks in the Department of Surgery. Without their generosity, our translational research could not be done. The impact of their donation will be felt for years to come, contributing to many research studies in the future.

I’d also like to thank my supervisors, Dr Niamh Lynam-Lennon and Prof. Jacintha O’Sullivan for their guidance over the last few years, the Health Research Board (HRB) for funding this study, and the entire Dept. of Surgery for providing such a supportive environment to work in.