Fígado Fiend

by Allison Reichl

As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I spent my summer studying gene regulation in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a type of liver cancer. ‘Fígado’ is Portuguese for ‘liver,’ and so it was one of the first words I learned! The basic premise of my project was to investigate whether stemness markers were upregulated in HCC tissue samples, and then determine if stem-cell expression correlates with clinical outcomes. Our proxy for ‘stemness’ was the relative expression of four pluripotency-associated transcription factors. We tested 66 samples from 22 patients — for each patient, we had (1) a tumor biopsy (2) an adjacent margin biopsy and (3) a distant margin biopsy. Biopsies were attained in the local hospital from HCC patients’ explanted livers immediately following liver transplant.

My day-to-day work at the bench included RNA extraction from the frozen tissue (which is extraordinarily tricky with liver tissue), Reverse Transcription, or Quantitative PCR. By the end of the summer, I ran over 1200 individual qPCR reactions! I also helped train Eric, a new PhD student at the lab — he became my right hand man for completing the experiments. One thing I really appreciated about the lab environment at Fiocruz was how collaborative it was. My PI encouraged everyone to work in teams, and students who were not even part of the HCC project were always eager to lend a hand. While the Fiocruz labs are truly “state of the art,” one challenge for researchers across Brazil is the availability of reagents. Reagents that would usually arrive to a laboratory in the United States within 1-2 days take at least a month to arrive to Fiocruz. Most of the suppliers are in North America or Europe, and often, specialized equipment is held at the Brazilian border. For example, some of my reagent plates (ordered before I even left for Brazil) never arrived because they were caught up in Brazilian customs. While this is frustrating, I suppose it forces students to plan in advance and use limited reagents with care.

During the last two weeks, I started analyzing the qPCR data and compiling sources for a manuscript. Data analysis is ongoing as the clinical files are received.

Picture: My two fabulous PIs, Dra. Clarissa Gurgel (picture left) and Dra. Milena Soares (right).

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Picture: Working at the bench with my PI, Dra. Clarissa, and Marina, an undergraduate student.

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Picture: My RNA ONLY extraction bench.

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Picture: My Fiocruz badge!

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Of course, there was time for a little more fun before I left Salvador! My mom visited me for a week, and we spent a weekend in Morro de São Paulo, a beautiful island town south of Salvador ~3 hours by boat. It is famous because there are no cars allowed, and the only form of transportation is wheelbarrows! Strong young men push suitcases and other goods along the cobblestone streets in their wheelbarrow “taxis”, making deliveries to the tourist ‘pousadas.’ I was pushed to use my (limited) Portuguese to get around.

Picture: Beachin’ on Morro de São Paulo with my mom!

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Picture: Sunrise on Primeira Praia (First Beach), where our pousada was located. Check out the adorable doggie!

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Picture: My mom and I witnessed a beautiful sunset at the Lacerda Elevator in Salvador.

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The last few days of my stay were full of celebration! On Saturday, my friends Carol and Breno took me to Rio Vermelho (‘Red River’), Salvador’s nightlife neighborhood. I also attended a Bahia soccer game with Thiago, and the crowd was insane! We rode the (very clean, very well-kept) metro train to the stadium, and everyone on the train was getting pumped up and cheering for Bahia!! Bahia won 3-0 against Flamengo, a hard team, so my friends said I must have been the lucky charm 🙂 On my final day of work, my labmates surprised me with breakfast, and my friends took me out to lunch for Carne do Sol (“meat of the sun”), a local dish! I must’ve gained at least 5 pounds with all the great Bahian food this summer.

Picture: Enjoying Rio Vermelho!

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Picture: Bahia’s newest SUPERFAN!! (Thiago even let me keep the flag.)

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Picture: Thiago and I waiting for the soccer match to start!

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Picture: Futebol under the lights at Fonte Nova Stadium.

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Picture: An incredible surprise breakfast on my last day. So much love for the LETI and LPBM labs!

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Picture: Saying goodbye to my guardian angel, Patricia, a PhD student at the lab.

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As I sit in the Fort Lauderdale airport writing up this blog, I am airplane-gross and exhausted, but I am really proud of myself. All alone, I traveled to Salvador with limited Portuguese, drove and lived in a foreign city, actually made some friends, and performed meaningful research. At times, I felt isolated and so frustrated by my inability to communicate. But I was challenged to grow as a researcher and a person, and I am so grateful for this opportunity to collaborate on the HCC project at Fiocruz. Now time to catch my flight back to San Diego, where I am looking forward to Jif peanut butter, hummus, and self-serve gas stations.

Tchau! And thanks for following my travels.

-Allison, MS1

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