UCL Division of Medicine


Spotlight on ECRs: Dr Pilar Acedo

Dr María del Pilar Acedo Nuñez shares how she became Junior Principal Investigator and co-head of the Pereira/Acedo Lab where she focuses on early detection of pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma

Pilar Acedo

13 January 2022

Interview by Sanchutha Sathiananthamoorthy and Marie-Belle El Mdawar

Our second interview shines a spotlight on Dr María Del Pilar Acedo Nuñez, a talented and dedicated researcher, who holds a vibrant career in her hands. In this episode, we chat about her research, recent academic achievements and inspiring commitment to public engagement and raising awareness of pancreatic cancer research. We have certainly learnt a lot from this discussion and hope you will too!

Pilar (@pilar_acedo), a senior research fellow at the UCL Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, Royal Free Hospital Campus, was recently promoted to Junior Principal Investigator (PI) and co-head of the newly named Pereira/Acedo Lab (@PereiraAcedoLab) alongside her encouraging mentor Prof. Stephen Pereira.

Her lab focuses on the discovery and validation of biomarkers for the early detection of pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, and the evaluation of novel therapeutics strategies for the successful management of these diseases.

She is also the Roving Director of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK/CERU), the chair of the United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Young Talent Group, and she is involved in so much more.

Thanks very much for joining us Pilar and congratulations on your recent promotion as Junior Principal Investigator (PI)! We will start at the beginning of your research journey. What led you to pursue a research career in pancreatic cancer?

First of all, thank you for the invitation and for your time. It is great to get a promotion after all the efforts, so that was a good achievement! [laughs]. Regarding my research journey, I have always been curious as a scientist and I really like biology, to better understand the complexity of our organism. I started working on cancer a while ago and I think it is a really interesting disease, because not all tumours are the same, which adds complexity, and trying to understand why some patients respond to therapy and some don’t. Then I decided to start focusing on pancreatic cancer, because it is really an unmet need– it is pretty aggressive. Its biology is really complex, and prognosis and survival rates are really low. Thus, I really think we need to do something to improve the outcome of these patients. 

And of course, the most obvious question! What is it like to be a PI?

It is interesting but a bit challenging sometimes too. Our team is formed by basic scientists and clinical researchers, and the co-PI of this team is Professor Stephen Pereira; he is a Gastroenterologist. He is really nice and supportive; he has given me the opportunity to lead the basic science part of the team, but I am still involved in translational research projects. I want my research to have an impact on patients’ outcomes and the way to achieve that is with translational medicine research. Being a PI is a great opportunity, but the problem is that you become a junior PI and your salary and position are linked to grants, so it is really stressful. It is not a permanent position, because it is not linked to teaching and it is based on research outcomes and on the funding that you get. At some point, I think it is really needed that we could somehow support permanent research positions instead of a focus on teaching positions. People doing research are also teaching: we teach students joining our courses, and in the lab, we are supervisors of BSc, MSc, and PhD students. I think this needs to be recognised because it is a very important role, a lot of work, that is interesting, rewarding and motivating.

I am really happy, it is a big step in my career progression, but as I said, this is scary too! [laughs].

You recently published your first article as corresponding author, on the use of engineered nanoparticles to treat pancreatic cancer. You were also awarded The Repurposing TIN Pilot Data Scheme Grant in 2020. Congratulations on both! Can you tell us more about the Scheme and the project that the scheme is funding?

I think it is an amazing scheme, so I really encourage you to apply for it; it is great for post-docs. I got it a few years after my post-doc, because I wanted to start a new project. The pilot scheme funds a six-month to one-year project. In my case, I applied for the Repurposing award, but they have different schemes, for example Diagnostics and Devices, or Regenerative Medicine. You need to select the topic that better fits your research. Then you apply and get a lot of training, which is great. The Translational Research office is very supportive. The panel gives you feedback, if you arrive to the next step. After (when you are selected), you need to do costings and think carefully about the project plan. It is a small pot of money, but it is important for us, junior investigators, to obtain preliminary data. You need to be able (if you arrive to the second phase, interview) to pitch your idea in three minutes, and this was a real challenge. You get training to learn how to do this and answer questions from the panel. The panelists come from different backgrounds, so it was a really interesting opportunity.

And what I do with this particular project, the project focuses on pancreatic cancer, but it could be relevant to bile duct cancer or cholangiocarcinoma too, which is my idea for future work. What I am doing is targeting p53, which is a tumour suppressor gene, usually mutated in a lot of cancers, helping cancers to proliferate and to bypass checkpoint controls. I am using small molecules to restore the wild type function of p53, and I am combining these small molecules with a therapy that is pretty cool, as it uses compounds that can be activated by light, inducing reactive oxygen species (ROS) and killing cancer cells.

You can learn more about Pilar’s work on the TIN Scheme on this blog and this video.

Do you have any students working with you on this project, like branching off on the project or are you working on this alone? Does the scheme fund one person or the whole project with some students?

The scheme doesn’t fund salaries, but it funds consumables. In my case, I was the main person working on it, but I was lucky enough to get two students joining my team with an Erasmus fellowship. I got a BSc student doing a Summer internship, and now I got a PhD student, funded by Erasmus helping me too, with the main part of this project: RNA sequencing. I am really enjoying it, because they are funding my idea. I also wanted to use this opportunity to learn new skills, which sometimes is difficult with other funding bodies where they want you to be an expert to give you the funding. So, here I got the opportunity to learn RNA sequencing (I had not had the opportunity to do it before). I am working together with UCL Genomics to run the experiments and to analyse changes in gene expression in my samples when treated with combination therapy or monotherapies.

Can you tell us something amazing about the pancreas that people may not know?

Some people may not know where the pancreas is located! I think it is a very complex and important organ. There are two parts: the exocrine and the endocrine pancreas and it regulates things like digestion, and also blood glucose levels. It is an organ that we need to take care of. Diet and exercise contribute to our wellbeing and to having a healthy pancreas, which is important because if you develop pancreatic cancers sadly, the average survival rate is six months after diagnosis. We can control some of the risk factors leading to pancreatic cancer development, of course not all of them, but we really need to think of having a healthy life style, because the pancreas is really an important organ.

You also have an impressive record of actively raising awareness of pancreatic cancer and being active in research. To mention a few, you are the Roving Director of the Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK/CERU), you have been invited as a speaker to the ‘Norwich Cancer Research Network’ virtual seminar, the 53rd meeting of the European Pancreatic Club and to the EurOPDX Consortium where you also participated in their ‘hands-on training’ program. Can you tell us a bit more about each one?

I really enjoy doing PPI (Patient and Public Involvement) activities, trying to explain to the public, the patients, and also to the students, about why our research is important. That is how you can get more support but also, if you want to have an impact on patients’ health, it is very important for them to understand why your research is key. We are now collecting blood and urine samples for early detection studies. Thus, we need to go and talk to the patients and explain our research to them, I find that really interesting. We also collaborate with PPI groups from different charities, and we organize fundraising events such as a salsa dance event. I have to admit, we got one MSc student who was really good at this, she was a teacher for salsa and bachata, I am really bad at dancing! We organised the event in the UCL main campus, and the money from the tickets went to the Charity Pancreatic Cancer UK. We had a lot of fun while taking the opportunity to raise awareness of the disease.

Regarding the other committees, I am also involved in training the next generation of translational scientists- which is really key. If they [students] see why we do what we do; of course, it is not because of salaries, it is not because of good conditions since getting a permanent position in academia is very tough, but it is what we feel really motivated about – science. And I think it is really important to explain why translational research is key. This is why I am involved in Council of the European Pancreatic Club. I am also chair of the United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Young Talent Group. It is great to be in touch with people working in other countries, learn from them, learn from new opportunities. By participating in these you will know people who may be your future collaborators; if you have an idea you can discuss this with them. Some of them become really good friends and then you can apply for a grant together, so this is another motivation.

Something that I learnt during my PhD is that networking is key. I have been living and working in five different countries over the last years and I think I have learnt a lot from that. I totally recommend people to travel around, get involved in societies. Via SRUK/CERU, I can get in touch with different groups in Spain, or students, as I mentioned before, can join my team with the Erasmus Program. Both students got the funding through this society, so it is really important for us to check different opportunities that societies offer.

I think you have somewhat answered our next question about why public engagement is so important, so we will skip this one! Can you tell us about a setback that you might have encountered as a researcher and how you were able to overcome it? 

First of all, you need to find someone supporting you at the beginning of your research journey, because the academic research path is not easy, and you need to network. You need people supporting you, people that you can trust, where you can go and say: listen I would like to apply for this grant what do you think; get feedback and learn from it. Sometimes, when someone criticises what you are doing, even if it is in a constructive way, the first reaction you have is oh no! I thought it was perfect, so you need to learn from this discussion. An obstacle I face as a junior PI, is that some people can be a bit concerned about you being young and not having a clue about what you are doing. Thus, you have to learn how to say: Hi, I have been working on this for ten years now, I know what I am doing. You also need support from your team. I am really happy with my team. I am really lucky to have my mentor and my students. I come back to them [students] when things do not work as expected and tell them: no listen, you are good enough, continue doing what you are doing. I think this is a good environment to work.

The main obstacle is also instability. I have been living in different countries; now I have come here [London] and I found my space, but trying to find a permanent position in research is so difficult that I understand why people are leaving academia and it is a pity because they [in academia] need us; they need people teaching, but they also need good and motivated researchers who can teach the next generation scientists and supervise a team properly. Because if they [researchers] don’t find their work motivating and rewarding, they will leave and we need people to continue doing research in academia. So, I think it is an obstacle; the work-life balance and instability.

Can you tell us about something interesting that you have read about recently?

There are several things. We have been reading a lot about RNA sequencing, but also, I would like to highlight the development of novel therapies for targeting mutant KRAS and this relates to my research in pancreatic cancer. A pharma company released the structure of a KRAS inhibitor that they were developing and there was a lot of news related to this. It is a huge opportunity for the research community to be able to target KRAS since previous efforts failed.

Reflecting on your research journey so far, what are you most proud of attaining or achieving in your abundant research journey?

(Excited) Can I mention two? The first one is getting my first grant as PI. This was wonderful, and the best part was applying with people that I consider my friends and the celebrations after. This was amazing, being able to say I am a PI, even if it was a small amount of money…  but then it became bigger with another grant where I am a co-PI.

And the 2nd one is that I just published my first research article that I built from zero with my name as corresponding author. I have been fighting a lot to get this out and finally it got accepted in a good impact factor journal, even if I don’t support the impact factor system of evaluation. It is more about the quality of the publication, but sadly, this is not how things work as for promotions people still consider the impact factor as major criteria. This work was done with a visiting PhD student who is also a friend now, so I am really happy about this work and seeing my name as corresponding; it translates a good feeling.

As a junior mentor, do you have any advice for PhD students and/or early career researchers who are starting their PhD/research journey?

I would like to say that sometimes you choose a group based on their publications, and I think before selecting a research group for your PhD or a post-doc offer, you have to meet the team. Talk to them and ask around who is going to be supporting you, because you will need support in this long journey and I think it is more important to consider the people you will be working with. If you choose only based on the topic, sometimes you can think that you are not really motivated about it. But when you join a team where you are happy, and they support you and take care of your mental health, that makes a real difference. In science, it is really important to consider work-life balance. And NETWORKING, networking (emphasis). These people are going to look at your grants and papers so don’t be shy, go and talk to them and usually people are nice and they will help you a lot.

Junior mentors are responsible for ensuring that PhD students have settled in well and have access to all the support they need during their doctoral programme. For more information, check the mentorship schemes and other Athena SWAN initiatives in the Division.

What research skill are you most proud of as a researcher?

I am a really picky cell biologist. I think this is really important because you want to be able to reproduce your data and to understand what is going on when, for example, you are treating your cells. So, I am really proud of being a picky cell biologist, and I also teach all my students to be picky too, while maintaining your cells alive, happy, and taking care of them in culture. Now I am also learning RNA sequencing, so this is great. I am really happy to be able to learn new techniques, this is key.

Outside research, what interests and activities do you like to pursue?

I really love travelling. I have been living in different countries for my research and this was one of the motivations. Due to the pandemic, this was more restricted so I really like cooking or baking particularly. It is similar to being in the lab and following a protocol. I find it relaxing in a way. I also like hiking; it is relaxing to go in the nature and discover new places.

While we are still doing our best to walk against the tumultuous winds that COVID inflicts, the importance of preserving our mental health has never been more important. Is there anything you do that you find beneficial to your mental health, in or out of the lab?

Inside the lab, I like to organise social events with the team. Sometimes you are working and you spend a lot of hours in the lab, so I think it is important to take care of the team and keep a good environment. It helps to organise things outside like sport days or going just for a drink or dinner. It is also important to promote that people can come and talk to you if they have any issues or they want to change the protocol or share anything that could be improved in the lab. Let them know that they can express anything they want.

Outside, for my mental health, as I mentioned before, I like baking just like everyone during the lockdown (so we didn’t have any flour left, laughing). I also like to take care of my plants: from the beginning, with the selection of the seeds, and then seeing how the plants are doing. I have a tiny space in my home that is very sunny, so I take care of my plants there. I think mental health is key. Doing exercise not only keeps us fit and healthy, but also helps a lot with mental health, especially with all the stress in science when, for example, you get a grant or a manuscript rejection, or after one week of failed experiments. For me, doing some pilates (exercise) is helping me a lot.

Do you have a favourite quotation or word that you would like to share with our readers?

For scientists, resilience is very important. I read this sentence one day "when life gives you lemons, make a Gin & Tonic" or as a healthier alternative, some lemonade. Since then, it comes to my mind when I get a grant or manuscript rejection. It makes me laugh and helps set priorities. Also, my top quote during my Ph.D. was "Carpe Diem"! [Seize the day].

Illustrative image of a mass in the liver

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