"Every time I am asked about IRB Barcelona I can’t help smiling and thinking that it is a great place to work"

Susana Ros (Barcelona, 1980) did her PhD at IRB Barcelona from 2004 to 2009 in the Metabolic Engineering and Diabetes Group, under the supervision of Dr. Joan Guinovart. After a 4-year postdoc at the Cancer Research UK -London Research Institute, in the Gene Expression Analysis Laboratory, she moved to Cambridge, where she became a Research Associate in imaging cancer metabolism in the Molecular Imaging Laboratory at the Cancer Research UK -Cambridge Research Institute -University of Cambridge. Her research has been focused so far on metabolism and cancer—on understanding the effects of perturbation of metabolic networks in the context of cancer. In this interview, Susana tells us about her current research interests and collaborations, and shares some and memories of her student experience at IRB Barcelona, as well as some good advice for young researchers as they embark on an academic career.


What do you remember about your PhD student days at IRB Barcelona and what did you take away with you?

IRB Barcelona was the place where I became a scientist. Although I did several placements in other institutes while I was doing my undergraduate degree in biology, it was at IRB Barcelona that I decided to do a PhD. It is where I decided to pursue a scientific career in academia. I have incredibly good memories of those years at IRB Barcelona with my labmates, as well as with researchers from other labs. We shared passion for what we were doing. Every time I am asked about IRB Barcelona I can’t help smiling and thinking that it is a great place to work.


What research projects are you currently working on at the University of Cambridge and what are your scientific goals? 

My scientific career so far has focused on metabolism and cancer; I am especially interested in understanding the aberrant metabolism displayed by tumour cells.  

My research here at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute aims to revolutionise the way that cancer patients are treated. When a tumour starts to respond to treatment, the speed at which it metabolizes some molecules changes. I am working on imaging techniques such as MRI to look at tumour metabolism, which could prove whether cancer treatments are working or not within 4 days. I use a technique termed ‘hyperpolarisation’, that increases sensitivity in the MRI experiment by more than 10,000. With this technique I inject a hyperpolarised 13C-labelled molecule and now have sufficient sensitivity to image its distribution in the body and the distribution of the metabolites produced from it. This approach could help us adjust a patient’s treatment much quicker than if we have to wait (months to see if their tumour has shrunk. I am very excited to be one of the researchers helping to test this technique in patients here in Cambridge.


Are you still in touch with other IRB Barcelona scientists or alumni? Do you have any scientific collaboration with them?

Yes, not only with my PhD mentor Joan Guinovart, but also with some my IRB Barcelona labmates. I have also been in touch with former IRB Barcelona and University of Barcelona scientists who have moved to UK. It is great to meet up with people you already know when you live abroad, it helps to answer some of the questions you have when arriving in a new country. And from a scientific point of view, I am collaborating with some of them.


Tell us about the prizes you were awarded after leaving IRB Barcelona:

It is great when your work is acknowledged, and I have been extremely lucky to receive two awards. I was given the Cancer Research UK Inventor Award in 2015 for my work on establishing a new metabolic target to treat prostate cancer. By screening hundreds of key metabolic enzymes, I found that the glycolytic enzyme 6-phosphofructo-2-kinase/fructose-2,6-biphosphatase 4 (PFKFB4) was essential for the survival of prostate cancer cells. I also investigated the molecular mechanisms that promote cancer cell dependency on PFKFB4. This work will help to stratify which and how tumour suppressor or oncogenic signalling pathways drive the dependency on PFKFB4, and it has important therapeutic implications. The Cancer Research UK Inventor Award did recognize the potential therapeutic application of this discovery.

And I have recently been given a Cambridge Cancer Centre Early Detection Programme Pump Priming Award to assess the utility of non-invasive imaging techniques to detect protein aggregates that could serve as early signs of cancer. This grant is helping me to start an independent project to develop non-invasive methods to characterise and image individual aggregates for early cancer detection, in collaboration with Prof. Klenerman (Dept. of Chemistry, University of Cambridge). In addition to its potential utility in diagnosis, this research will also be informative regarding how amyloid contributes to cancer development and progression.


What advice would you give your younger PhD-self? And/or to the current PhD student community at IRB Barcelona?

I would tell myself to think big, go multidisciplinary, and expand my scientific network. For the current PhD student community at IRB Barcelona, my advice would be the same, and I would maybe add going abroad in order to develop your future academic career.