Hi, I’m Daria, a fourth year Immunology student from Italy. I am currently in the sixth month of my Placement year at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy. I am doing this experience to become familiar with working in a real lab and I really recommend it! Despite restrictions due to Covid-19, I have been fortunate enough to access the lab every day to work on my project. I am part of a group studying the role of the HPV viral oncoproteins E6/E7 on tumors of the head and neck.
Head and neck cancers can develop in several regions of the head and neck area (i.e. tongue, oral cavity). Because of the cells they arise from, we broadly refer to them as head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). These can have risk factors such as alcohol and tobacco, but quite recently it was found that they can also be caused by HPV infections.
As you might know, HPVs are a group of sexually transmitted viruses which cause warts and cancer. Another important thing however is that HPVs are distinguished in low-risk (responsible for warts) and high-risk which lead to the development of cancer, such as the most well-known HPV16 and 18. What allows their ability to induce tumorigenesis is the presence of E6 and E7. These interfere with some important tumor suppressor genes as well as many cell pathways. Despite the many differences between HPV+ and – tumors, treatments are still rather standardised, making it very important to find new strategies.
The aim of my project is to find out how the knockout of E6/E7 (using techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9) affects different HNSCC cell lines and how this could translate into therapy. Currently I am cloning guides for the E6 and E7 genes into two different plasmids (one also carrying the Cas9 enzyme which cuts the DNA of the gene of interest). I will then use them on 7 different HPV+ head and neck cancer cell lines.
I am amazed by how much I have learned in just a few months - in fact, I can now work independently on many experiments and I even helped to write a review which has now been published with my name! If you’re interested in learning more about how E6/E7 lead to cancer, you can read the review here.
Thank you for reading and stay safe!