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Messel Travel Bursary recipient, Steven Street, reports from Prague

Steven Street

27 July 2017

Steven Street was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary for travel to the 6th International Meeting on Quadruplex Nucleic Acids in Prague. Here he reports on how presenting a poster and flash presentation at this conference has helped him appreciate the broader relevance of his chemical work and meet potential collaborators.

‘My name is Steven Street, and I am a final year PhD student at the University of Bristol. I work with Dr Carmen Galan on the development of new small molecules that are able to bind to novel four-stranded nucleic acid structures, termed G-quadruplexes. Whilst our group is a carbohydrate chemistry group, a lot of what I do is centred around chemical biology. Chemical synthesis makes up the primary part of my research, however an increasingly large secondary section involves the biophysical and biological evaluation of the compounds that I have made.

‘Earlier on this year, I was very kindly awarded a Messel Travel Bursary to attend the 6th International Meeting on Quadruplex Nucleic Acids. This was held in Prague, Czech Republic. The meeting is held biennially, and I had never been before. As this was the sole event for researchers studying quadruplex nucleic acids, it meant that opportunities to meet or discuss my research with anyone else from the G-quadruplex field were very few and far between; since starting my PhD, I had met only one other person from the field.

‘That all changed on 31 May, as I made my way to Prague for the 6th International Meeting on Quadruplex Nucleic Acids, or ‘the G4thering’ as it was known (G4 is an acronym for a G-quadruplex, the type of nucleic acid structure that we are interested in). The conference had 47 speakers, including 8 keynote lectures from some of the biggest names and founding fathers of the quadruplex nucleic acid field. The meeting was very interdisciplinary, with sessions on everything from quadruplex biology and structure, to therapeutic targeting with small molecules and even quadruplex nano/biotechnology applications. This proved to be immensely beneficial for myself, as I have spent many hours reading biological / structural quadruplex papers from a chemist’s perspective, so the opportunity to speak to people with different backgrounds and interests really helped with my understanding of where the field as a whole is, as well as rationalising some of the results that I have. It also helped me to understand what the unmet needs of biologists and others studying quadruplexes are. Several interesting ideas were formulated from interdisciplinary conversations! Overall, the meeting attracted about 300 scientists from a range of backgrounds.

‘One of the highlights of the talks was listening to Prof Stephen Neidle speak. He was one of the pioneers of the G-quadruplex field back in the early 1990s, and has authored over 500 publications and 14 patents. He is mainly focused on targeting G-quadruplex structures for the treatment of cancer, and indeed the work that I have undertaken as part of my PhD built on his research. I learnt a lot from his lecture, including what the main challenges were in turning G-quadruplex interactive small molecules into cancer treatments. I also managed to have a conversation with Professor Neidle in between sessions, which was very fruitful. He was able to answer several questions that I had, and he also said that our recent publication on my research was ‘a nice piece of work’, which was high praise! Another highlight was seeing Prof Sir Shankar Balasubramanian speak. He is another of the pioneers of the field, and was responsible for detecting G-quadruplex structures inside cells. His work is orthogonal to my own, focusing on understanding where and why G-quadruplex structures form, and how to detect them, validating them as a drug discovery target. Other notable speakers included Jean-Louis Mergny, Marie-Paule Teulade-Fichou, Anh Tuan Phan, Janez Plavec and Nancy Maizels. Between them (and a few others), they are responsible for driving the whole field forwards, so hearing them impart their wisdom on their respective research areas was invaluable.

‘I was presenting both a 90 second flash presentation, and a poster presentation while there. Condensing four years of research down into 90 seconds was quite a hard challenge, but at least the audience knew what a G-quadruplex was! My presentation went well, and I had many people coming to visit my poster during the poster session. Indeed, I think that the poster session was the most useful of all, as I had many in depth discussions and debates with interested people (helped along by a glass or two of wine), which led to several potential new collaborations and many new experiments to perform upon my return to the UK. Many people were interested to see the results of my research, and pleasingly there were several people who had results that supported mine. One thing that was apparent to me during the poster session was that there are many people studying the biological roles of G-quadruplexes, but not many developing new chemical tools to enable this research. This opens several opportunities for synthetic chemists like myself to develop tools which might be of use to biologists - something I didn’t appreciate as much before the conference.

‘While at the conference, I was also able to catch-up with my Spanish co-supervisor, Dr Juan Carlos Morales along with our other collaborators from Spain. We had a productive meeting about my research on the side-lines, which was very useful for myself.

‘My future career prospects have been greatly enhanced by attending this conference. I have networked and made several acquaintances which could be useful for potential postdoctoral positions, as well as discovering several gaps in the field where chemists like myself could develop useful tools to solve problems. Both of these will be invaluable to me as I complete my PhD and embark on my own research career, either independently or as part of another group in academia or industry. This is not to mention the opportunity that I had to visit the lovely city of Prague. For this, and all of the reasons outlined above, I am indebted to SCI for making this trip possible through the financial contributions they have made in awarding me a Messel travel bursary. I thoroughly recommend my peers to apply.’

Steven Street
PhD Student
University of Bristol

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