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What do cancer researchers do all day?

3 September 2011

This week’s question is from Andrew Danly of Point Loma, CA.

Hey Ryon:

What is it you do in the lab on the front lines of the battle to cure cancer? Are you looking at “switches”, testing magic bullets, growing or killing things? How do you measure progress? Do you move forward in increments or are you looking for a home run? What’s in your beaker right now? Ever had an innovative idea outside the lab that you put into play? If so, elaborate.

I love it! The reader turns the spotlight back on the writer!

I remember how before I started cancer research the whole process of actually doing science was very foreign to me. For most people, their exposure to science is limited to a dry book of “facts” and things to memorize. Their stereotype of a scientist is a socially awkward white male that wears thick glasses, stumbles over things but somehow has no problem running many bubbling liquids of different colors in glassware connected by an elaborate maze of plastic tubes. If only there was some way I could dispel those impressions…

I was inspired to take a self-portrait for this article.

Ok, so maybe I often do wear that white labcoat, but this is actually how I would look when I get an experiment to work. In this instance, I am holding up what is called a western blot of a protein binding array. After months of cutting and pasting sequences of DNA, tricking bacteria to make my protein, purifying the protein, modifying the protein with enzymes, I was able to get an important anti-cancer protein to bind and may have figured out a new drug target or two. Cool. You’d look amazed too!

Now, on to your questions…

What is it you do in the lab on the front lines of the battle to cure cancer?

I could seriously write a book about what I do. As a matter of fact, that’s basically what I am doing. I am a PhD student, and the sum of my work will be compiled into a thesis that can be anywhere from 100 to 500 pages.

On a daily basis, I do anything from cutting and pasting together sequences of DNA, purifying specific proteins from bacteria, dissecting mice, growing human cancer cells in petri dishes, and I wash it all down with plenty of reading in scientific journals and the occasional blog post.

My central project is investigating the biochemical processes that allow cancer cells to spread through the body and metastasize (see hallmarks of cancer article). The majority of cancer deaths (and the horrible progression of the disease) is caused by the spread of cancer cells that preludes the growth of new tumors in distant organs. Using some old school biochemistry and DNA engineering combined with new school genetically altered mice, we have developed models that have lead to a better understanding of this process. We are expanding knowledge in this realm because it is very amendable to therapeutic intervention. If one is able to stop cancer spread, cancer becomes a manageable disease, not a death sentence.

Are you looking at “switches”, testing magic bullets, growing or killing things?

I guess one could say that we do a bit of all of the aforementioned. Our lab is trying to figure out how to switch cancer cells back to be able to commit cell suicide. There are hundreds of tissue types in the body with thousands of cell types and trillions of cells. For the vast majority of tissues, if a cell leaves its cozy microenvironment that it is used to, it commits cell suicide and kills itself to maintain the proper order of things. Cancer cells do not. This is partly why cancer is such a difficult problem. The immune system still recognizes tumors as “self” and not “foreign.”

What is interesting is that often cancer cells of many cancer types will still maintain the self-destruct switch, but it’s hidden in a room deep in an underground lair surrounded by a moat filled with sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. But, there must ways to get to that switch, and every little experiment we do is one more piece to the biggest jigsaw puzzle you’ve ever seen.

Do you move forward in increments or are you looking for a home run?

Steven Wright once said: “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.” While we do not necessarily steal ideas, almost all of our experiments and every little piece of that giant jigsaw puzzle could not make sense without the pieces put into place by others. In that regard, we do not swing for the fences. We do not just randomly give dying cancer patients exotic extracts from deep corners of the Amazon; we would take the extracts by screening them with biochemical tests we develop in test tubes to identify good candidates. Then we would move on to petri dishes with cancer cells, then in mice that get cancer, and if all that works something might move into the clinic.

Image: each little off-white dot is a bacterial colony that harbors a cloned gene.

What’s in your beaker right now?

This very moment? I’ve currently got a small mix of bacteria that I purposefully grew into a culture, tricked them into making a specific protein that I engineered, and am now treating with bleach to kill of any remaining bacteria that I did not leach the engineered protein from. In reality, the bacteria that I am using are so harmless that it would almost certainly not grow outside of the lab and I could probably just dump it down the drain without any real problems. But, we extra-kill it just to make overactive safety zealots sleep better at night.

Have you ever had an innovative idea outside the lab that you put into play? If so, elaborate.

The true mark of a scientist is not memorizing encyclopedias of “knowledge” or getting complicated experimental procedures to work, but asking good questions. Scientists are generally very curious people that are always thinking about the problems they tackle and the projects they work on. I spend a lot of time outside of lab riding my bike. I ride it fast, I ride it slow, I ride it up and down hills and mountains, by ocean and even to work!

During that time I often let my mind wonder, and some of my most innovative ideas have come while out and about. I realize that this sounds more like an artist than a “scientist,” but at the core of scientific progress is curiosity and creativity. Visualizing is an indispensable part of any creative endeavor, and I’ve made major mental breakthroughs while not in lab. Science is a way of life, a philosophy unto itself, and I really wish I could share those experiences with everyone.

The End…. ?

This was a fun topic. If you have more questions like this, dear reader, I would be more than happy to give you insights into what myself and other active scientists do.


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