On the 18th January 2016, 16 of the 17 MELGEN Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) gathered in Leiden. They began an intensive 10-day course of training hosted by the Leiden University Medical Center and GenomeScan, one of MELGEN’s commercial partners. The course was designed to give all the students, irrespective of their previous experience, an introduction to the field of melanoma research and the skills they would need to carry out their PhD projects successfully.
The first part of the course was an introduction to what is known about melanoma genetics of melanoma patients and their tumours. There was also a session outlining the different melanoma therapies currently available to patients and the direction that treatment of melanoma is likely to take in the future.
The second module of the course is a comprehensive look at state-of-the-art genomic technologies used to explore melanoma genetics. These increase our understanding of what genetic and biological pathways drive melanoma susceptibility in the general population and in melanoma families. The same techniques are now also increasingly being used to look at melanoma tumours in an effort to understand what genetic changes influence survival and/or response to different therapies.
But it isn’t all theoretical learning by any means. The module also involves a course of practical laboratory training. This is designed to give each student, regardless of whether their PhD project will be based in the lab or on data analysis, an understanding of the steps involved in generating the types of genetic data they will be dealing with. Under expert tuition they are generating DNA and using a variety of different techniques (including next generation sequencing) to look at a number of genetically determined traits. They will be looking at the genes used to determine sex, the ability to taste extreme bitter substances, blood group and hair/skin colour. The genetics of hair and skin colour are particularly relevant in melanoma as natural variations in a key gene being looked at by the ESRs, MC1R, which generally result in red hair and pale, easily burning skin, are associated with an increased risk of developing melanoma.
To round off their Leiden training the students are also taking part in an Introduction to Statistical Analysis module. The aim is to give the ESRs a grounding in the statistics they will need to use to analyse the data they generate during their PhD project. The module comprises a series of taught lectures and practical workshops allowing them to put their learning into practice. This will involve them getting to grips with ‘R’, a free, open source programming language frequently used to analyse complex biological data sets.
Also important is the opportunity for the ESRs to get to know each other and form friendships that will help them to support each other through the next few years. That means taking time outside the lecture theatres and labs to enjoy each other’s company in a less formal setting, such as a nice meal or a blustery walk on a foggy beach!
It is hoped that the friendships they make here will carry forward beyond their MELGEN training and develop into meaningful collaborations as they move on to the next phase of their research career.