Inform, Empower, Connect

My name is Tyler Barr and I am in the final month of my PhD, at the University of Leeds. My PhD research is supervised by Professor Graham Cook and Dr Fiona Errington-Mais.  My interest in cancer immunotherapy research was first sparked after I completed my MSc in Molecular Medicine. Having lost a wonderful friend, Will, to Ewing sarcoma in 2015, when a PhD studentship was advertised investigating immunotherapies for Ewing sarcoma, it seemed it was meant to be. I applied and was successful. In this short blog, I hope to explain a little about my PhD research, and how this will be expanded into osteosarcoma (OS).  

PhD research  

My PhD research investigated the use of oncolytic viruses (OV) for the treatment of Ewing sarcoma (a type of bone cancer). Oncolytic ‘cancer busting’ viruses are a type of immunotherapy. They can kill cancer cells directly and by activating the body’s immune system to fight cancer.  

We used tumour cells grown in the lab to test how effective OVs are at killing the Ewing sarcoma cells directly. We also extracted immune cells (commonly known as white blood cells) from blood collected through blood donation. Then we looked at how well the OVs could activate these immune cells and help tumour cell killing. This research is in its early stages, but these steps are essential for any further progression.  In future years, they could be potentially used in clinical trials.  

Investigating oncolytic viruses in osteosarcoma  

My post-doctoral research will assess OV in OS.  OVs target cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed due to a number of factors which differ between these cell types. One of which is the presence of small molecules on the cell surface of cancer cells, which allow the virus to enter the cell. To identify OVs which may be effective for OS treatment, cells grown in the lab will be screened for these small virus-entry molecules on the cell surface. I will also test the ability of OV to kill OS cells directly. 

To assess the effect OV therapy has on the immune cells in OS, I will obtain immune cells from blood. The immune cells will then be treated with OVs and put into contact with OS cells in the lab, to determine whether OV treatment increases their ability to recognise and kill cancer cells.  

Cancer cells are known to weaken the immune response. This is one of the key reasons that tumours can grow and spread. My research will investigate the ways in which OS tumours can hide from the immune system. Once we better understand this, it will allow us to test combinations of OV with other treatments to find the best one.  

Long term impact of this research  

Our lab hopes to publish our results establishing the effectiveness of OV against OS so that these can be considered for clinical trials. Getting a new treatment approved for use is a very long process. The work I am doing is the first key step towards this. 

I often describe it as each research project provides the answer to part of a very complex puzzle. The more projects there are working on specific areas of cancer research, the more quickly we can put those pieces together.  Therefore, we will better understand the cancer and identify kinder and better treatments for patients.  

‘I have met many sarcoma patients and their families over the past 4 years. Nothing provides more motivation to work towards developing better and kinder treatments’. – Tyler Barr

Future outlook  

I hope to continue a career in research, with a focus on immunotherapies for sarcoma. Having met so many sarcoma patients over the past 4 years, I am very determined to work towards finding new treatments. There is an urgent need as the current standard treatments for sarcomas are very outdated. 

I have met so many incredible researchers from all around the world. I am very hopeful that with this collaborative approach, future years hold promise for providing improved treatments for OS and Ewing sarcoma. The support of charities such as Osteosarcoma Now is essential in moving the research in this field forward.