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MEET OUR PHD RESEARCHER!

PhD candidate Andrew Sheppard is researching new types of therapy for oesophageal cancer

Andrew is a PhD scholar in the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute (TTMI), and is funded by the Irish Research Council with support from the CROSS cancer research charity. He is supervised by Dr Joanne Lysaght, Associate Professor in Surgery. Andrew completed a B.Sc. in Human Health and Disease in Trinity College Dublin during which he undertook an ERASMUS+ in the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studying immunotherapy for neuroblastoma. He then undertook an M.Sc. in Cancer Research in University College of London’s Cancer Institute, working on oncolytic virus therapy. Following that, he returned to Ireland and is in the third year his doctorate. The title of his PhD is ‘Enhancing immunotherapy in Oesophageal Adenocarcinoma through the modulation of immunometabolism with then novel small analogue inhibitors Quininib and its analogues’. We spoke to Andrew about his work, the path to his PhD, and what he does to unwind!

Can you describe your research topic?
My research focuses on using a new type of therapy for oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe). This new therapy is called immunotherapy and uses your body’s own natural defence system to fight cancer. The problem is that, just like chemotherapy or radiotherapy, it does not work for some people. My project is trying to understand why this happens and to at the same time attempting develop a new drug that we hope can help improve how patients respond to treatment. The science of it relates to how our cells need to consume nutrients for energy, just like ourselves. The problem is that cancer cells consume food at a higher rate leaving other cells, such as the cells of our immune system, without enough nutrition to carry out their role properly. Our aim is to target the metabolism of cancer and immune cells in the hopes of boosting the ability of the immune cells to kill the tumour cells alongside conventional therapy and the new immunotherapies.

How do you see your work impacting healthcare in the future?
At the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute, we’re lucky in that we work closely with the clinical team in St. James’s Hospital, meaning that our work is closely tied to patients and to the doctors and nurses who care for them. This close partnership allows our research findings to be linked back to the patient and will hopefully inform clinical practice in the future. My project also has strong links with other scientists working on the same class of drugs in Ireland and across Europe. Ultimately, no one project is going to change the face of cancer, however by working closely with other groups and clinicians we hope to lay the foundations for future pre-clinical and clinical studies, but it takes time.

Can you describe your research topic?
My research focuses orefuture. My project also has strong links with other scientists working on the same class of drugs in Ireland and across Europe. Ultimately, no one project is going to change the face of cancer, however by working closely with other groups and clinicians we hope to lay the foundations for future pre-clinical and clinical studies, but it takes time.

Did you always want to pursue a research career?
Since I was a child I was a bit of a science geek, but it wasn’t focused on biomedical science per se. What directed me towards the health sciences was that my younger brother and father both had diagnoses of cancer in the same year, thankfully they both are still doing fine! But the experience pushed me towards cancer research and to my undergraduate degree in Human Health and disease, during which I had my first taste of cancer research in Sweden. It was then during my master’s degree that I realised that a PhD was the next logical step for me.

What do you enjoy most about your studies, and would you recommend the academic life to young student and undergraduates?
I don’t think a PhD is for everyone. It can certainly be hard dealing with failure at times as well as the added financial pressure of being a student for many years beyond that of your friends. That being said, it’s an exciting path where you have a certain freedom to follow wherever your experimental findings lead, something a lot of other careers could not offer. A PhD also is a great door-opener for careers outside of academia, although it is definitely not a necessity for those interested in a career in industry.

Any undergraduate students who are interested in research should reach out to research groups regarding opportunities for experience. Some organisations offer summer scholarships with research lab experience, and that can be a great way to find out if it suits them. It’s also important to reach out to experienced mentors and ask them for their honest opinions, but ultimately, it’s something that only the person themselves can find out.

What are your plans for the future?
For now, I’m focused on finishing my project and writing my thesis. It’s hard to see beyond that, but I hope to see what opportunities are open when I’m close to finishing. I am particularly interested in working abroad for a time, as science is a collaborative path which works best when done with a team.

When you are not working on your PhD studies, where could we find you?
Outside of the lab I enjoy exploring and hiking, although due to the current situation I have been limited to the hills within 5Km. I have also developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with baking bread and making pizza since lockdown, I find maintaining a sourdough starter has a lot of parallels with working with cells in a dish! I don’t think I could neglect to mention my love and dependence on coffee.

You can learn more about the work of the CROSS Cancer Research Charity here: http://www.crosscharity.ie