Women in science: a story of missiles, gratefulness and being the first Feb 11, 2019
Despite all the efforts of the global community in engaging and inspiring women and girls in science, less than 50 % of the researchers are women in most countries and enrolment of female students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related fields remains low. In honor of the ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we want to steer away from the long-standing biases and gender stereotypes by showcasing some of our amazing UHasselt scientists and provide girls and boys with new role models in science.
OMNE TRIUM PERFECTUM
“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, creativity, or curiosity.” – Mae Jemison.
Omne trium perfectum, good things come in three. Today, we sit together with three researchers who are determined to make this world a better place. In order to achieve this, they are pushing the field of biomedical sciences to the next level. More specifically, their research’s aim is to advance the field of cancer research.
Over 9.6 million people die each year from cancer, which is more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. It’s a collection of diseases in which abnormal cells can divide and spread to nearby tissue and it’s the second leading cause of death, second only to cardiovascular diseases. And the numbers are only increasing. By 2030, experts estimate that the death toll will rise to over 13 million people. However, we also already know more about cancer than ever before. Scientists all over the world are giving it their all, because the more we know about it, the more progress we can make. Let’s get to know our kickass scientists who are doing exactly this!
A STORY OF MISSILES, GRATEFULNESS AND BEING THE FIRST
Lieselotte: “Hello, my name is Lieselotte Lemoine and I am a Ph.D. student in the group of Prof. dr. Kurt Van der Speeten, his first one actually.”
Jolien: “I am Jolien Robijns and I just finished my Ph.D. in the group of Prof. dr. Jeroen Mebis. I am currently continuing my research project as a post-doc.”
Esther: “That means that we have 3 in a row here as I have just finished my post-doc in the group of Prof. dr. Ivo Lambrichts and became a tenure track professor. My name is Esther Wolfs by the way. I am excited to hear how both of you ended up in cancer research.”
Lieselotte: “When I was in high school I had this amazing biology teacher who was able to inspire me and got me really interested in biology. However, after studying biology for half a year at UHasselt, I switched to chemistry and later biochemistry as I felt this would suit me more. After my graduation, I ended doing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, which is a nice combination between biology and chemistry.”
Jolien: “For me, it already started when I was just a kid. I went to museums, watched documentaries on TV, and read encyclopedias as if they were comic books. I eventually choose to study biomedical sciences and already during my years as a university student I was drawn to research. What I quickly realized was that I got most excited about projects that had a direct impact on a person’s life. So I knew if I would start doing a Ph.D., it had to be on a subject that suited me and my intrinsic need to help people. During the final year of my master program, I absolutely wanted to do a clinical internship. As these were quite rare, I went to Prof. dr. Mebis, head of the medical oncology department at Jessa Hospital myself. He invited me for a conversation and told me about a new research project they were initiating at the time. I took the opportunity, the results ended up being great and as a consequence, I was able to do a Ph.D. project on the subject. How about you Esther?”
Esther: “Actually, I didn’t study sciences at all in high school. It was against the advice of my teachers that I went on to study biomedical sciences. This clearly shows to me that you can only fail if you don’t try. If you set your mind to it, you can achieve anything. Now there’s nothing else I would rather do then doing science all day. I still haven’t regretted my choice for one day.”
Lieselotte: “So what kind of research have you done up until now Esther?”
Esther: “I am mainly looking at how we can use stem cells, unique cells with the ability to develop into specialized cell types, that we extract from wisdom teeth to develop a new therapy against head and neck cancer. We do this by genetically modifying these cells, which converts them into homing missiles that will specifically attack tumor cells. In addition to this, we ensure that we can follow the therapy in ‘real time’ using medical imaging techniques like PET and MRI, allowing us to adapt the therapy according to the needs of the patient. Our end-goal is to save as much healthy tissue as we can; given traditional treatment methods often have a lot of side effects for the patients. What I have learned from this type of research is that thinking outside the box and working together with various experts is of extreme importance. Also, I learned to look from different perspectives at each decision I make. For example: how would this affect the patient? Is the clinical applicability still guaranteed when we adapt the protocol? … These are the type of questions I have learned to ask myself. I have heard and read a couple of times that your research also tries to reduce side-effects, Jolien?”
Jolien: “Yeah, we received quite some press attention and awards with the results of our research. I am really grateful for that. Indeed, to be more specific, my research revolves around the use of photobiomodulation. This is a non-invasive therapy, which uses visible and/or (near)-infrared light produced by a LED or laser source. It’s used to speed up the healing process of wounds and counter inflammation, pain and swelling, something that could really benefit cancer patients. We wanted to see which painful side effects of cancer therapy could be reduced and how much it could improve the quality of life. Something that was barely investigated before.”
Lieselotte: “So what did you find out?”
Jolien: “We are investigating this new therapy against 3 complications that occur when patients are receiving cancer treatment, namely oral mucositis (OM), acute radiodermatitis (ARD), and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). OM is an inflammatory response that occurs in the mucosa of the mouth in 20-40 % of the chemotherapy patients and almost any patient that receives radiotherapy for head-neck tumors. ARD is an inflammatory skin reaction that occurs in 90-95 % of patients that undergo radiotherapy. CIPN is a numb, tingling and/or burning feeling in the limbs of patients that undergo chemotherapy. We obtained very positive results for both OM and ARD, looking at both subjective (patient questionnaires) and objective (skin measurements, humidity, …) parameters. However, we only recently started our study with CIPN, so there is not enough data yet to draw conclusions.”
Esther: “I am sure that must feel very rewarding.”
Jolien: “Indeed. The recognition and gratefulness you get from the patients are extremely motivating. But what about you Lieselotte? How was life as the first Ph.D. student under Prof. dr. Van der Speeten?”
Lieselotte: “A unique experience for sure. I am looking at peritoneal surface malignancy (PSM), also known as peritoneum cancer. This is a condition that arises when tumor cells exfoliate from a primary tumor and invade into, and attach to, the distant peritoneum that covers the inside of the peritoneal cavity as well as our organs. Up until 10 years ago, this type of cancer was viewed as incurable and systemic chemotherapy resulted in a life expectancy of only 15 months with a poor quality of life. We are investigating how we can improve and standardize a new treatment strategy: the combination of cytoreductive surgery (CRS) and hyperthermic perioperative intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). The goal of CRS is to remove the macroscopic tumors that are visible with the naked eye, while HIPEC is used to remove the remaining microscopic tumors. We want to generate pharmacological data towards a standardized dosing regimen during the HIPEC procedure. Being the first Ph.D. student on this topic proved to be quite the challenge, as I had to initiate everything myself and learn a lot of new things in a short period of time. But succeeding in this is something I am very proud of. So what are the future prospects for both of you?”
Esther: “My main objective now is to build up my new research group. Together with other enthusiasts, and the support of various scholarships, I hope to design a new therapy to treat cancer and leave my mark on the field.”
Jolien: “During my post-doc, we want to create a laser center within the Jessa Hospital in collaboration with UHasselt. This center has three main goals: treating oncologic patients with photobiomodulation therapy for OM and ARD, organizing training courses for other medical specialists, and performing further research for other indications. This would eventually mean a higher quality of life as well as survival chances for so many people, something I could have only dreamt of when I started my studies in biomedical sciences.”