Meet the team on a mission to combat childhood cancer

Meet Eva Bugallo Blanco (left) and Alice Piapi (right), two researchers at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH). Together, they are working on the development of new CAR-T cell therapies for neuroblastoma, the second most common solid childhood cancer.

“We’re focusing on T-cell based immunotherapy, a type of treatment that boosts the body's natural defences to fight cancer", says Alice. "We isolate white blood cells from the patient’s blood, we engineer them to express a new receptor and then inject them back into the patient."

"The expression of this new receptor redirects the patients’ white blood cells so that they can recognise and attack the cancerous cells more efficiently," explains Eva. "These modified white blood cells also have the potential to recognise and attack new cancer cells that may develop later in life - even more strongly than the first time."

What inspired your careers in science?

"The Italian scientist Rita Levi Montalcini got me passionate about science,” begins Alice. “Her Jewish identity meant that she was greatly persecuted during World War II. She experimented on chicken eggs, in a laboratory she set up in her bedroom. Despite these difficulties, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. I always thought ‘I want to be like her when I grow up.’ I’ve always been fascinated, and I’ve always had her in my mind.”

“I first came in touch with translational research during my bachelor’s degree and I found it truly interesting. I further pursued this direction during my master’s degree and shortly after graduating I had the opportunity to come and work here at ICH", says Eva. “Having a research centre and a paediatric hospital under the same roof is quite unique. It creates a collaborative environment where our research teams and clinicians work closely together. We also feel closer to the patients and families we are trying to help.”

“That’s why I came here as well,” explains Alice. “I am very focused on translational research. I like that we're all in the same building - clinicians, researchers, patients. This not only makes the cause feel closer to home, but also gives us the unique opportunity to study and work with actual patient samples. I like that we're all in the same building - clinicians, researchers, patients. We use biopsies from patient samples across the corridor. The administration is easier and the cause feels closer to home." 

“GOSH is at the forefront of research into childhood diseases. From researcher to clinician, there’s a multitude of expertise at GOSH, and these teams often work closely together," says Eva. "Everything we do is aimed to treat, cure and improve the quality of life of these seriously ill children. They need our help and our research can make a difference to their lives. A living example is Kymriah, a CAR-T cell therapy developed to treat leukaemia patients, which was recently used to treat a patient here at GOSH."

What are your ambitions for the future?

“I hope one day, something I’ve worked on or helped developed as part of a team, will make it in to the clinic, in to patients, and help their lives. That’s what motivates me every day and keeps me pushing forwards,” says Alice.

“Thanks to recent breakthroughs in CART-T therapy for treating leukemia, we’re in a moment where immunotherapy isn’t only the future for cancer treatment, it’s also the present,” explains Eva. “The success of CAR-T cell treatment in blood cancers encourages us to keep researching to develop this therapy for solid tumours too. It means that we have a target and our targets are in sight. When everything you work on is aimed to help seriously ill children, you’re motivated to reach these goals. Our best way to help these children is through our research. New therapies are needed and hopefully they can be quickly implemented in the clinic.”

What message would you give to those interested in a career in science?

“Just go for it. Work hard, be determined. Not only in science but in life,” says Eva. "If you are interested in science, focus your efforts on developing a solid background knowledge and skill set and join the scientific community.”

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