Researcher in Focus: Dr. Olga Piskareva

Our October “Researcher in Focus” is Dr. Olga Piskareva. Olga is a StAR (Strategic Academic Recruitment) lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). She is leading the Cancer BioEngineering research group. Her research is funded through the National Children’s Research Centre Paediatric Research Project Grant scheme to study neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer caused by the abnormal growth and development of immature nerve cells (neuroblasts) of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that is most associated with our flight-fight (or freeze) response. Neuroblastoma commonly arises in the adrenal glands but can start in other sites such as the chest, neck, and near the spine. The prevalence of neuroblastoma is about 1 case per 7,000 live births which translates to approximately 10 cases in Ireland per year and thousands of cases globally every year. Around 90% of cases are diagnosed in children under the age of 5 and it is one of the most common cancers in children under the age of 2 years old. It accounts for approximately 15% of all cancer deaths in children.

As Olga explains “The main challenge in effective long-term treatment of neuroblastoma is to combat tumour metastasis and the development of resistance to multiple chemotherapeutic drugs. Despite major advances in available therapies, children with drug resistant and/or recurrent neuroblastoma have a poor outlook with 5-year survival rates of less than 20%”.

Olga’s research aims first, to identify biomarkers that can tell us how a patient’s tumour responds to treatment, and second, to identify new drug targets for the development of personalised treatment strategies that could more effectively treat patients with neuroblastoma. Her research group are particularly interested in the use of 3D cell culture systems to accurately engineer the tumour environment as seen within the human body, the role of extracellular vesicles (small membrane bound vesicles released by cells that are rich in proteins, lipids, and miRNA) in cancer progression, and the potential of circulating extracellular vesicles to be used as biomarkers of disease progression or response to treatment.

To date, Olga’s research group have identified changes in the amounts of specific miRNAs (small RNAs involved in the control of gene expression) within extracellular vesicles released by neuroblastoma cells following treatment with chemotherapeutic drugs. They are currently validating these results in a range of neuroblastoma cell lines using 3D models to accurately represent the diversity seen in patient tumours. As Olga explains “These studies will help to select the strongest and most representative [biomarker] candidates for further examination in blood of patients with neuroblastoma”.

Olga (second from right) and her research team holding a waffle morning to raise funds for the CMRFNeuroblastoma UK, and the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. 

Olga’s interest in neuroblastoma research began when she started working in Prof. Ray Stallings’ Lab in RCSI, a world-renowned expert in the area of cancer genetic. “I have worked in various fields from basic science to biotechnology before joining a cancer research lab with the focus on childhood cancer neuroblastoma. I was very surprised to see that our knowledge of neuroblastoma biology is fragmented when compared with adult cancers. This may partially explain why no major improvement in outlook for children with drug resistant and/or recurrent neuroblastoma observed despite major advances in available therapies. So, I decided to focus on understanding how neuroblastoma cells communicate and function at the tissue level. Knowing what communication messages tumour sends to circulation in response to drugs might be used to help select patients for treatment and develop more effective personalised therapy with anticipated improvement in clinical outcome. I feel that all my knowledge and expertise could find missing jigsaw pieces and add a new dimension to this field”.

Olga would like to thank the CMRF and NCRC for their support of her research “I am grateful to the NCRC and CMRF for believing in me as a scientist and supporting my research. Research is slow process because we, scientists, have to meticulously test and model many conditions in unbiased mode. This is why research is a long-term investment that brings positive changes in our lives. This funding allows me to do what I love and do best – to ask questions and look for answers and eventually bring patients with neuroblastoma closer to better treatment and personalised medicine. I would like to thank every supporter of CMRF for their donations and fundraising activities. Each of you helps to make dreams of children with neuroblastoma come true. Dreams of a happy and healthy life after the treatment is over. Thank you for believing in research and in this project”.

Further information on Olga’s research on neuroblastoma can be found through the following links:

Curtin C, Nolan JC, Conlon R, Deneweth L, Gallagher C, Tan YJ, Cavanagh BL, Asraf AZ, Harvey H, Miller-Delaney S, Shohet J, Bray I, O’Brien FJ, Stallings RL, Piskareva O. A physiologically relevant 3D collagen-based scaffold-neuroblastoma cell system exhibits chemosensitivity similar to orthotopic xenograft models. Acta Biomater. 2018 Apr 1;70:84-97 (Pubmed)