The journey begins

We have received feedback about our project ‘OncoLive’ confirming that Cancer Research UK is funding OncoLive. Aiming to reach out the broader community, we will keep you updated about our activities well in advance of peer-reviewed work we hope to publish in the future.

How did OncoLive start?

At the time of writing, OncoLive got just funded thus we need to recruit before starting experiments. However, OncoLive started a long time ago behind the scenes. It was late 2015 when I sent an email to Maria Alcolea, a former colleague at the MRC Cancer Unit, asking to have a chat about the opportunity to combine some of the work I was doing on optogenetics and oncogenesis with her in vivo or organoid model systems. I was thinking about pump-priming funds from the CRUK Cambridge Cancer Center at that time.

After a few meetings, in mid-2016, we were ready to start planning a project around a few ideas and we invited into this collaboration a former collaborator of Maria, Philip Greulich who moved at the University at Southampton. Since then, OncoLive is a collaborative project between Maria, Philip and I, but as we asked funding to do something rather different compared to what we do individually, we focused on writing a good proposal with no possibility to start experimental work.

Eventually, the CRUK multi-disciplinary project award seemed a very appropriate call for our project. Together, we decided to use optogenetics to seed cancer-causing mutations in organotypic cultures of epithelial cells. The plan is to develop both a new microscopy platform that will combine biochemical imaging and optogenetics with light-sheet microscopy and ad hoc 3D culture systems. We will be then able to seed driver mutations in a tightly controlled spatiotemporal way within a tissue model and map, in real-time, how these mutant cells would cooperate or compete with other wild-type or mutant cells. We aim to obtain ‘real-time’ information about early events during oncogenesis, experiments otherwise impossible to execute and to generate insightful information for building ever more useful models of carcinogenesis.

In 2017, we received the first negative feedback from the CRUK. Both referees and panel highlighted some weaknesses in our proposal but also its disruptive potential. Therefore, we were invited to resubmit an amended proposal. This required a few experiments that, with limited resources and within the limitations of existing instruments we had available, took some time to perform. Eventually, we were in a good position to resubmit an amended proposal that we were delighted it was accepted for funding.

We are excited about starting this project together. We are also grateful to the referees, the panel and the CRUK. In a highly competitive environment, it is not uncommon to invest months of work on heavy applications that are easily rejected for trivial issues. However, not only the CRUK MDPA submission was a much lighter process but – despite the long delay from the inception to funding – everyone involved seemed genuinely interested in funding OncoLive while motivating us to improve aspects of it.

What next?

Recruiting. We will soon advertise two positions for post-doctoral scientists. Watch this space.


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Biophysicist studying molecular networks, cell function and decision, stochasticity and heterogeneity in biological systems and cancer. Opinions are my own.