Clare Jonas
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A day in the life: Chiara Pirillo, acute myeloid leukaemia researcher

Clare Jonas
Posted by
14 Dec 2018

Meet Bloodwise-funded PhD student Chiara Pirillo and discover why she’s dedicated to finding treatments for blood cancer.

Chiara at the 2018 Bloodwise Grantholders’ Day conference
Chiara at the 2018 Bloodwise Grantholders’ Day conference

How did you become a blood cancer researcher?

During my undergraduate degree, my dad was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and from that moment on I decided to become an active part of the battle against blood cancers. When I met Dr Cristina Lo Celso at Imperial College London and she told me about her acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) research, I quickly realised that this was the PhD I was looking for.

What are you working on right now?

One thing that people with AML experience as the disease progresses is the loss of healthy blood stem cells. These cells can produce all the blood cells of our body such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

In healthy adults, these stem cells make their home in the bone marrow. We call this home the niche. However, when leukaemia progresses, the leukaemia cells occupy the bone marrow, forcing the healthy stem cells to leave. After chemotherapy, if someone is in remission (cancer free), the healthy stem cells occupy the bone marrow again. I want to see if the healthy stem cells manage to survive during leukaemia by going to other niches.

Chiara at work in the lab at Imperial College LondonChiara at work in the lab at Imperial College London

Why do we need the research you do?

We still don’t understand why healthy stem cells are forced out of the bone marrow by leukaemia cells. Current treatments kill the leukaemia cells, but due to AML’s fast progression the treatments are delivered when the bone marrow is already affected. It’s only after treatment that healthy stem cells go back to the bone marrow. Understanding how leukaemia cells push out the healthy stem cells during the early stages of the disease could help us design new treatments to help the healthy cells to resist the invasion of leukaemia cells. Eventually, we hope to be able to stop leukaemia from getting into the bone marrow at all.

What do you do in the lab on a day-to-day basis?

Each day in the lab is different but the only constant is that I rarely have time to sit! At the moment I am doing a lot of intravital microscopy. This is a powerful technique that allows me to see how cells interact with each other in the bone marrow.

Chiara examining intravital microscopy imagesChiara examining intravital microscopy images

I also use a technique called flow cytometry, which allows me to see and sort different types of cells based on ‘markers’ that are on the cell surface. A day with flow cytometry is more active than a day with the microscope, and my colleagues will see me running from one side of the lab to another as I prepare and run 50 samples of cancer cells on the machine.

You’re just over halfway through your PhD. What are you looking forward to in the future?

I am sure I will pursue my career in this field as I have a very strong motivation and big fans: my family!  My parents are both proud of what I do, especially my father, because he truly understands what people with leukaemia experience.

What's one of the hardest things about your work?

One of the hardest things is trying to keep yourself motivated even when your experiments fail. In science, sometimes even not having a result is useful and it’s important to accept that. I am a perfectionist and I find it hard not having everything under control all the time. However, after two years of PhD I have improved and now I can also smile if my experiments give me different results than the ones I expected.

Is there anything you would like to say to Bloodwise supporters?

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of this family and to contribute to the battle against blood cancer! It’s an especially personal battle for me as my father has CLL. Since the moment we had his diagnosis, working in blood cancer has been my personal goal. Having your support in doing that, is my greatest victory.

All the amazing research we fund can only happen thanks to support from you. Find out more about how you can help us continue our live-saving research, or about the AML research we fund.