It’s tumour research that drove Charnay Cunningham from iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Science (iThemba LABS) in South Africa to GSI in Darmstadt, Germany, for a sandwich Ph.D. „I felt that it would be of advantage to expand my radiobiology knowledge and to gain practical experiences“ Charnay explains.
Like ticking time bombs
Her Ph.D. in South Africa is about tumour angiogenesis – i.e. how a tumour stimulates the growth of blood vessels in order to provide it with oxygen – and how this process could be influenced by proton irradiation. At GSI, Charnay started to establish three testing systems that GSI researchers of the Clinical Radiobiology group will use to investigate so-called dormant tumour cells. Those cells disseminate from a tumour and rest for example in the tissue around vessels, where they stop proliferating (and, for example, do not induce angiogenesis). The problem: They seem to be resistant to radiation therapy for example, but are “woken up” to form metastases upon a variety of stress triggers.
Cell culture models
To enable the investigation of dormant tumour cells, Charnay laid the basis for two models: Firstly, she worked on a creating a sphere out of cultured cells as a tumour model to investigate dormant cells that may occur in the centre of the cell sphere. Secondly, she set the starting point for a migration assay to observe the migration ability of tumour cells with the life imaging microscope available at GSI. Further, she learned about a cell survival assay.
“Although I couldn’t really finish establishing the tests systems in the three months I have been working here, I think that I could provide good starting points for the lab”, Charnay states. “And I profited a lot from the broad cancer research knowledge that I found here at GSI. Further, my work here marks the starting point of collaboration between iThemba LABS and GSI in dormant tumour cell research.”
Her experiences in Germany? “My group made a huge effort to make me feel welcome”, Charnay says. They cared about her and involved her in many social activities, and she also enjoyed the GET_INvolved tours for example to Frankfurt (“Art & Apple Wine” – Instagram).
The safety especially in the German public transport system is refreshing, Charnay finds. She profited from the good connections to visit a couple of places in the region, such as Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and – thanks to her Schengen visa – even the Netherlands. She was surprised about the unique natural beauty of Germany’s landscape with big forests and mystic castles. However, the falling temperatures in German autumn (“It is freaking cold!”, Charnay laughs) make her looking forward to returning to South Africa – where the summer just is about to start.
Sandwich Ph.D. Stay of Charnay Cunningham, iThemba LABS, Cape Town, South Africa
Funding: GET_INvolved programme South Africa
Duration: 3 months
Application to GET_INvolved programme: https://fair-center.eu/get_involved