A FEBS Advanced Lecture Course on Oncometabolism: From Conceptual Knowledge to Clinical Applications – September 2019; Luso, Portugal

Tumour metabolism, an important and currently fast-moving cancer research topic with clinical relevance for diagnosis and therapy, is the focus of an upcoming FEBS Advanced Lecture Course. Here, the event organizers Paulo Oliveira and Ana Urbano introduce this research area, share their perspectives on the field, and tell us about how they are arranging a valuable course that is particularly beneficial to early-career researchers.
A FEBS Advanced Lecture Course on Oncometabolism: From Conceptual Knowledge to Clinical Applications – September 2019; Luso, Portugal

The FEBS Advanced Lecture Course on “Oncometabolism: From Conceptual Knowledge to Clinical Applications” will be held 1–6 September 2019, at Grande Hotel de Luso (Portugal). It's the second edition organized by Paulo Oliveira and Ana Urbano, after a very successful first event in 2017. Applications are open, including for travel bursaries. Explore all the details on the event website, and enjoy an introduction through a Q&A with the event organizers below. 

Tell us a bit about yourselves... 

[Paulo] I am currently Principal Investigator at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC), a research institute at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. I am also Invited Assistant Professor at the same University. The focus of my research is the role of mitochondria in aging and environment-related diseases, including cancer.

[Ana] I am an Assistant Professor at the Department of Life Sciences, in the University of Coimbra, Portugal. My MSc research was on the development of metal chelates for NMR imaging, whereas my PhD studies focused on the energy metabolism of mammalian cells. Since then, I have somehow merged my interests in bioenergetics (and its links to all aspects of cell life and death) and bioinorganic chemistry by studying the molecular mechanisms of hexavalent chromium carcinogenesis, namely the role of metabolic changes in this process. 

What drew you to cancer research?

[Paulo] Something that always attracted me was the plasticity of cancer metabolism: how cancer cells could adapt to diverse internal and external stresses, and how mitochondria could adapt their biological activity to those different cues. I actually began most of my studies investigating how natural and synthetic molecules could selectively target tumour mitochondria. From there, my interest evolved to the fundamental changes in the bioenergetic machinery in both normal and tumour cells, and especially in the last case, how the differentiation state of the cell would impact metabolism and vice-versa.

[Ana] I was (and still am) fascinated by the seminal findings of Otto Warburg regarding the energy metabolism of cancer cells. While many cancer researchers consider Warburg’s proposal of a single primary cause for all cancers, i.e., a shift to a more fermentative metabolism, as a huge oversimplification, I find the simplicity of Warburg’s proposal very appealing and worth exploring to its limits.

Why is the study of tumour metabolism important?

[Paulo] The study of tumour metabolism has already produced a widely successful imaging technique, 18FDG–PET, in which the diagnosis and staging of tumours is based on the avidity of cancer cells for glucose (as predicted by Warburg!!). The intriguing metabolism of cancer cells holds also an immense potential for cancer therapy. In fact, some of this potential has already materialised: in the last couple of years, the FDA has approved two targeted treatments – ivosidenib (Tibsovo) and enasidenib (Idhifa) – for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in individuals with a mutation in the metabolic enzyme isocitrate dehydrogenase (isoforms IDH1 and IDH2, respectively). Finally, as our knowledge of metabolism expands, it has become increasingly clear that it has links to all aspects of cell life, differentiation and death, so we expect that research on tumour metabolism will also prove invaluable for other areas of research.

In brief, what’s the history of the field?

[Ana] This field has had its ups and downs. Despite Warburg’s huge reputation among his peers, his metabolic theory for the origin of cancer generated a lot of controversy, as it was difficult to conceive, with the knowledge of that time (1920s), how changes in the energy metabolism could have any impact on cell proliferation. In fact, for many decades, Warburg’s findings and ideas remained essentially dormant. With the advent of 18FDG-PET, and its huge success in the diagnosis and staging of tumours, came the general acceptance that most cancers do share an increased reliance on fermentation for energy generation. Still, metabolic rewiring was generally disregarded as a mere epiphenomenon of neoplastic transformation. Over the last two decades, data supporting and expanding Warburg’s findings regarding metabolic rewiring as a driver of carcinogenesis slowly accumulated. Importantly, it became firmly established that metabolism and signalling are closely linked. Then, in 2011, Weinberg and Hanahan proclaimed tumour metabolism as an emerging hallmark of cancer, turning this field into a hot topic in cancer research.

What do you expect to be some of the hot topics at the event?

[Ana] The recent approval of the two above-mentioned drugs targeting metabolic enzymes really boosted the morale of oncometabolism researchers and the confidence of both small and big pharmaceutical companies. However, one has to acknowledge that the approved treatments do not constitute a cure. Also, they are orphan drugs, as they are intended to treat a rare disease. Thus, in terms of cancer therapy, there is still a lot to be achieved, and this will be one of the topics covered by the course. Fortunately, as a result of dramatic improvements in techniques such as mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance, as well as in metabolic imaging techniques, it is now possible to “observe” metabolism with increasing detail and, ultimately, answer key questions. Our course also includes talks on these more technical, but equally critical, aspects of research. Oncometabolism is a very fast-moving field of research. By now, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need also to focus on the metabolism of those cells that constitute the tumour microenvironment. Indeed, the metabolism supporting metastasis formation will be another hot topic at our course.

What led you to organize this event?

[Paulo] The science that supports the course is undeniably very timely and relevant. Keystone Symposia, for instance, have been including a conference on tumour metabolism in their lineup since 2010. We felt that a similar event was needed in Europe. In fact, this course represents the second edition of the FEBS Advanced Course on Oncometabolism, originally held in Figueira da Foz, Portugal, June 2017, in front of a very enthusiastic group of students. This first edition was a success, highly praised by the participants, including giving rave reviews on social media, which led us to propose organizing a second edition two years after the first one. We look forward to see again familiar faces two years after the first event. For the second time, we want to organize a hub of training and discussion on the newest discoveries and advances in oncometabolism.

How have you designed the scientific program?

[Paulo] Obviously, we wanted to have in our FEBS Advanced Courses top researchers in oncometabolism and we were fortunate enough to have in our 2017 and 2019 editions a variety of excellent speakers, infusing a lot of fresh air into the scientific programme. Besides this, we have confirmed a fantastic panel of tutors which will train the participants in more technical aspects, including statistics, microscopy and systems biology. We are also presenting a nice tutorial focusing on the initial steps of the history of oncometabolism research.

Apart from the invited talks, there will also be short talks, flash presentations and poster sessions, as we wanted to provide plenty of opportunities for participants at all career stages to present and discuss their research. And as this is a 5-day course, there will still be ample time for socializing. Above all, we want to make bridges between participants, so new collaborations and synergies can be generated from this event.

What’s special about your event?

[Paulo] Everything! Great scientific program, great social events, amazing food and venue, and above all great participants and speakers. Most still don’t know it, but they will have a FEBS Course to later remember (for all the positive reasons). This is a course that they will cherish all their lives.

What are you most looking forward to at your event?

[Ana] Organizing a scientific event with these characteristics is really hard work (being on a very tight budget does not help). Thus, it only pays off if it is really successful. That was the case with the first edition of the course. The talks (both invited and selected from abstracts) were great and were always followed by lots of questions from the audience. For short talk presenters, having invited speakers very well known in the field wanting to know more about their research was really rewarding. The poster sessions were always very much attended and appreciated. Basically, everybody really seemed to be having a good time. In fact, we know that some of the participants to the first edition will also be coming to this second one. Basically, I am looking forward to the same level of satisfaction.

What standout events have you attended during your career and how did they help you?

[Paulo] I have participated in a few FEBS Courses on mitochondrial biology and bioenergetics. In fact, my first FEBS meeting was in 2000. Almost 20 years later, I do remember that meeting not only for the scientific content, but for the people I met. One of them is still my collaborator in Poland and a great friend.

[Ana] I have attended different types of events, both big and small (in terms of participant numbers). I have to say that I really prefer the slow pace of the small ones. With all my teaching duties, I really crave for moments when I can concentrate fully and calmly on my research and organize my thoughts, and these events have often provided those moments.

How will you be encouraging interaction between early-career scientists and the experts?

[Ana] This is a question of utmost importance for us and was taken in due consideration when we designed the course. For instance, we have limited the number of regular participants to 100, which corresponds to a participant versus speaker ratio of about 5:1. Also, we have chosen a venue that has plenty of very cosy and relaxed common spaces which will certainly attract both early-stage scientists and the experts, promoting their interaction. We have also taken advantage of the venue’s outdoor and indoor swimming pools for networking purposes, scheduling four “Pool Networking” sessions. A “Speed Dating with the Experts” session was strategically scheduled half way through the programme, at a time when early-stage scientists will feel more comfortable addressing the experts. Finally, the course’s social programme includes two very pleasant visits, which will certainly bring together most of the early-stage scientists and experts. The visit to the Buçaco forest, an ancient, walled arboretum very close to Luso, includes a picnic lunch, further contributing to a relaxing atmosphere.

What’s your view on social programs in scientific meetings, and what do you have planned?

[Ana] When properly planned, social programmes can be great for networking purposes. Also, they should allow participants to get some local flavour of the country/region in which the meeting is held. For instance, participants to the FEBS Oncometabolism course will not only have the opportunity to visit the Old Campus of the University of Coimbra, classified by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, but also to get to know some of the places frequented by students. At the picnic lunch, they will taste some local sweets and savouries.

What makes a successful event in your eyes?

[Ana] In the words of one of the participants to the first edition, the course was the “perfect combination of science, networking and fun.” I do think that she couldn’t have given a better description of a very successful course.

Event details:

Oncometabolism: From Conceptual Knowledge to Clinical Applications
1-6 September 2019 │ Luso, Portugal

Meeting bursaries deadline: 20 May 2019
Deadline for Short talk and Flash presentation abstracts: 20 May 2019

Top image of post: Confocal microscopy of undifferentiated mouse P19 embryonal carcinoma cells labelled with TMRM (red, mitochondria) and Hoescht 33342 (blue, nuclei). Image obtained by Paulo Oliveira.