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Twinning boosts excellence in cancer research – Information Centre – Research & Innovation

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If countries can’t train high-quality research staff, they will struggle to deliver innovative cancer treatments. An EU-funded project enabled four academic institutions to exchange staff and share best practices, resulting in various career advancements and successful research grant applications. These will benefit citizens through the researchers’ expanding skills to advance cancer treatments.


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© anttoniart #300552708, source: stock.adobe.com 2021

Despite significant medical advances, cancer remains a major health burden. In many countries, the disease ranks as the second most common cause of death, a fact that continues to drive research into new diagnostic techniques and treatments.

“The development of immunotherapies (treatments that help your immune system to fight cancer) and vaccines are areas of biotechnology where we have seen a great deal of work,” notes VACTRAIN project coordinator Maria Issagouliantis, lead researcher at Riga Stradins University (RSU) in Latvia. “There is a huge amount of social, political and scientific demand for progress to be made in these areas.”

A key challenge however is ensuring that cutting-edge research – as well as new therapeutic tools – are adequately disseminated. This is critical, because if knowledge remains locked in a few labs and institutions, or a few countries, then the potential benefits cannot be fully realised. A lack of institutional expertise also means that young researchers often feel compelled to complete their studies abroad, taking their expertise with them.

Sharing knowledge and experience

The EU-funded VACTRAIN project sought to address this challenge by building up institutional expertise. “This wasn’t a research project as such,” explains Issagouliantis. “Our aim was not to develop and test new cancer immunotherapies, or therapeutic vaccinations. Rather, we wanted to bring together expertise from different countries, in order to encourage better healthcare performances, primarily in Latvia, but also elsewhere.”

To achieve this, the EU-funded VACTRAIN project linked RSU, one of Latvia’s leading biomedicine and biotechnology centres, with other institutions across Europe. “The university offers huge research potential and medical expertise,” adds Issagouliantis. “This made RSU an excellent candidate for twinning.”

During the project, connections were made with two internationally renowned research institutions – the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Sweden, and the Department of General Biophysics at the University of Lodz in Poland.

“Both represent centres of excellence in the design, testing and clinical applications of a wide class of immunotherapeutics,” says Issagouliantis. The consortium was complemented by the Kavetsky Institute of Experimental Pathology, Oncology and Radiobiology in Ukraine (KIEPOR). “Altogether, the twinning effort united four partners,” explains Issagouliantis. “Links between these institutions were forged through workshops, laboratory courses and extensive staff exchanges.”

Promoting research expertise

This sharing of experiences and best practices helped to build up institutional expertise, inspiring innovative follow-up initiatives. RSU for example has formed a taskforce to develop modern nanomedicines, which has gone on to win important research grants from the Latvian Council of Science.

In addition, a unique cross-border research network involving trainees and researchers from all four partner institutions has been launched, to form a kind of nanomedicine development chain. The network has successfully competed for research grants on the design and testing of DNA-based nanomedicines that target cancer.

“I think that the impact of this project can be measured by the fact that three international grants have been won by consortia involving VACTRAIN members,” says Issagouliantis. “VACTRAIN has helped to lay the groundwork for the development of advanced research in Latvia.”

Directly a result of the twinning project, one senior researcher received their first European grant, for a project devoted to developing nanomedicines. Two postgraduates who worked on the project are currently completing their PhD studies in the field of cancer, with completion expected in 2021.

“All this expertise will help us to train and keep hold of highly qualified specialists in the future,” notes Issagouliantis. “This is important for the development and health of our country. Of the eight young trainees who participated in the project, only one has left to continue their studies abroad. Providing career opportunities means we can retain expertise.”

Finally, progress can also be seen in Issagouliantis’ own career advancement. “I was promoted to the position of leading scientist at RSU in 2018, which was renewed in 2020,” she concludes. “I also received a 2-year grant for research into immunotherapy from the Latvian Science Fund for 2018-2020.”

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