Coronavirus Q & A

Professor Chris Jones and the impact of COVID-19 on DIPG research, from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

As a world leading expert Professor Chris Jones heads the 'Glioma Team' at the ICR where they concentrate on unraveling the genome and epigenome of paediatric brain tumours. Their aim is to find the genes that drive development of these cancers, and identifying ways to translate these findings into new treatments for children with these tumours. 

We thought it would be of interest to put a few questions to Prof Jones about the Covid -19 situation, and how DIPG research is currently being affected in the lab.

The team focuses on paediatric high grade and DIPG - diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma – tumours that continue to have such a dismal clinical outcome. They are part of a major effort to build up the most detailed picture to date of the genome of these aggressive cancers.

As these tumours are rare, Professor Jones has forged many collaborations with other international organisations in order to collect samples that cover the spectrum of potential variations, and to conduct the most comprehensive possible analysis.

Professor Jones’ work has already revealed some significant genetic differences between the adult and child form of the disease, and has highlighted potential new drug targets, that Abbie's Army funding has contributed to considerably.

There is a real unmet clinical and basic science need in this tumour type, as paediatric high grade gliomas are incredibly resistant to current treatment options, and we really know very little about the underlying biology of the disease,” Professor Jones says.

Our ambitions within the laboratory are to turn some of our laboratory-based hypotheses into real, molecularly-based treatments for malignant paediatric gliomas, and to see, at last, real progress being made in the survival of children with these dreadful cancers.”

How has Covid-19 changed the ability for your team to conduct DIPG research at ICR?

Unfortunately like many others, we had to close the lab in mid-March. Since then we have been working from home best we can – for the most part analysing data we already had, making figures, and writing up our results. We have kept closely in touch by Skype and Zoom etc, and tried to be as productive as possible. This became more difficult over time as the vast majority of the lab were subsequently furloughed as part of the UK government scheme. The exceptions were myself, our bioinformaticians (who can perform computer-based analysis at home) and one lab member, who was allowed in to the ICR to finish an ongoing experiment. We have at least completed several papers whilst at home, and had great discussions about how to move things forward when we return.

International collaboration for rare cancers is crucial, are groups the team is part of managing to continue working together?

Yes – a great example is CONNECT, which in an international consortium of hospitals across the USA, UK, Europe and Australia who come together to run clinical trials in children with brain tumours, including DIPG. I am head of the laboratory biology efforts, and although none of us are able to run experiments at this time, we have discussed and written several new projects and funding proposals to plan for when we can get back. Along with other collaborative groups, we have become experts at remote meetings, and continued to discuss the science frequently.

Do you envisage a new research ‘environment’ for DIPG post Covid-19 as aspects such as remote working have been beneficial in other ways…eg reducing travel, pollution etc?

Much of the analytical work has carried on as normal, which has been incredible to see. As we return to the lab in a staged way, I can imagine much of the computer work for us all may continue to be done effectively at home. On a personal level, when I have not had to deal with Covid-related planning, I have been very productive with writing and thinking, so more home-working may be inevitable. We have had several small external meetings or major international conferences cancelled, where we would normally be presenting our work, and hearing from other experts from across the globe. Virtual meetings have shown that we can probably reduce many of these, but I’m not sure they can truly replace the depth of interaction and exchange of ideas that come from being face-to-face.

Can the speed and collaborations we have seen put in place for Covid when there is priority that affects us all, be held up as an example for DIPG in the months to come?

There are several lessons to learn from this for sure. The speed and flexibility of research labs and computational scientists to completely switch their focus for a short time to address a common goal is absolutely something we could do in DIPG research. This something we are talking about in our collaborative groups, where perhaps a new idea needs a major collaborative push. Equally of course we need to understand the reasons that some attempts at centralised organisation failed so badly, like the UK testing response.


The deferring of any research is obviously a difficult decision for charities to make, have your DIPG research projects experienced this?

Yes, unfortunately most of our projects have been subject to this, with the relevant staff furloughed under the government scheme. It is extremely difficult as almost all the work we do is funded by charities. We know how much effort goes into raising this money and we know the hopes and expectations the charities have – we share them.  We want to be doing this work and we want to deliver on our promises to those who have supported us. We have tried to keep going with as much as possible remotely while we have been able to.

Are there now inevitable lengthy delays on any clinical trial implementations in the UK for DIPG

I can’t comment precisely, but I believe activation of most if not all new trials have been halted. Of course, on the plus side there is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy associated with opening a clinical trial, and that has carried on during this time, so hopefully any delays will be relatively short.

The economic impact on research generally will be substantial, for a specific area such as DIPG where funding is more scarce do you foresee this as the main barrier to any re-engagement? Any further barriers?

Funding is likely to be a major problem for us, and everyone else, in all that we do. It is hard to predict how substantial it will be, or when it may return close to how it was. Smaller funding communities like DIPG are extraordinarily engaged with the researchers, and completely committed to what they do, so I hope we can work together to keep the most critical work going as the recovery begins. There is certainly no shortage of motivation from my lab staff to getting back to work and driving our research forwards as soon as possible!

Outlook and any predictions for a return to ‘normal’ or will this be a different ‘normal’

We have been making preliminary plans for returning to work for a while now, and with the latest announcements we are drawing up timelines to enact them. We assume that for some time this will include some form of staggered working patterns, with a lot of flexibility over coming in at odd hours or over the weekend for some. We also need to be extremely mindful about people’s care responsibilities and their ability to travel to/from the lab. I think much of the ‘non-lab’ work will remain at home for a while, so as a team we will also have to work out how to interact effectively when we are not all together at the same time – in a strange way that will be even more difficult than when we are all at home. We are definitely aiming to be as productive as possible as soon as possible within whatever limitations we have to ensure a safe working environment for the team.