Meet the Researcher
PhD student in Bioengineering and Biotechnology
Novel tools for quantitative pathology: testing the prognostic value of stromal evolution in hematopoietic malignancies (Interdisciplinary Doctoral Project, 2017)
Please describe your PHRT project:
Rita: My PhD work focuses on the development of novel tools for quantitative pathology and applying them in the context of hematopoietic malignancies. This digital pathology and AI-based tools focus on the quantification of different compartments within the human bone marrow tissue biopsies. I am particularly interested in tracking the stromal compartment evolution at diagnosis and during treatment follow-up with the aim to test the prognostic value of this evolution. In parallel, I was able to develop a local bone marrow cell surface stromal biomarker panel and titrate it on aged-matched control human bone marrow biopsies. This stromal biomarker panel will be subsequentially tested on routine bone marrow biopsies from acute myeloid leukaemia patients at diagnosis and follow up. Following this testing, we hope to find few biomarkers correlating with disease progression.
What are the biggest challenges of your project?
Rita: One big challenge that I encountered during the beginning of the project is the need to bridge the communication gap between the clinical/medical and engineering field in the context of my project. It was of a huge importance to be able to tailor the tools to the needs of the clinicians and to follow their approach with regards to their daily practices. As I come from an engineering and scientific background, this was a learning experience for me to work at the intersection between the research and medical field and to strictly abide to an ethical protocol when it comes to patients’ data handling.
Another foreseen challenge will be at the level of the clinical data handling and the correlations of our generated quantification with disease progression.
What are you most proud of regarding the PHRT project?
Rita: Training a pathologist to use the developed quantitative pathology tool “MarrowQuant” in the clinics. Seeing my developed tool being used by the targeted audience was an extremely rewarding moment for me after 2 years of continuous optimizations and validations. The peak moment was to see that the tool performs well in a live manner as compared to the gold standard. I felt like a parent very proud of a child’s achievement. This is a pure example of translational research diving into the clinics, challenging for sure but worth it because at this stage there should be no room for tool failure. It will lead to further development and adaption of the tools to the clinicians’ needs and best practices, and us shifting more towards deep learning.
What do you like the most about being working in an ETH Domain research group?
Rita: Working in an ETH Domain research group is very stimulating especially within a multidisciplinary and supportive team. I am lucky to be surrounded by expert engineers, bioinformaticians, biologists, and clinicians on whom I can rely for a constructive advice or opinion on my project. Combining the expertise of the engineering and the medical field is extremely stimulating and rewarding, especially because we feel that what we are doing is real, we can clearly assess what is right and what is wrong, what is clinically accepted and what is not clinically adapted. There is a joy behind this translational application because it is about the real world and real-life scenario. This kept me completely grounded with a large-scale approach to science and transitional research.
What do you dream to achieve in research one day?
Rita: I have high hopes in precision medicine through technological developments (digital and/or organoids research) especially applied to the field of cancer treatment. This will only be achieved if we join forces and expertise all the way from basic science, bioengineering innovations, and to clinical applications. I truly believe that there is no clear boundary between basic and applied research. I see this dream coming true with a purely multidisciplinary approach for research whereby improving the life of the patients is the centre of focus. I was/am extremely lucky to be surrounded by inspiring mentors since my undergraduate studies in Lebanon up until now and I hope that one day I can transfer this passion for research to the new generation of bioengineers.