Monday, 27 August 2012

Mobility scooters, old ladies and cancer cells. WHAT???

How can a nice old lady riding a mobility scooter be compared to a ruthless cancer cell? You may not know now but you will by the end of my story.

Today I am going to post a piece that I've written a few months ago for a writing competition talking about what I do.

It has a fun side of my writing and since I've enjoyed so much writing it, I've decided to share it with you and see what you think about it. Have I gone to far?

Here it goes:

If you are a scientist, you know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that I have to answer over and over again the question “what is it again that you do?” And even if you’re not, but if you know one, you know how hard it is to explain those weird things that we do in the lab.
 After spending some sleepless nights thinking about my problem (well, not exactly because of this but yes, science can give you insomnia, believe me) I’ve come up with this:
I study a type of proteins called chaperones. Basically what they do is to keep an eye on other proteins’ function, to be sure that everything is in order in a normal cell, a bit like a guardian. The reason why I’m interested in studying them is because cancer cells take advantage of this guardian function to grow and survive, exactly the same way old ladies take advantage of those mobility scooters available on high streets (with all due respect to old ladies, are you starting to see where I’m going with this? Not yet? Don’t worry, you will).
By using the chaperones, cancer cells also become more dependent on them and in our lab we are trying to develop drugs that will inhibit the chaperones specifically being used by the cancer cells, while sparing normal cells. This might still be tricky to appreciate but hopefully with my example you will understand it better.

 Let’s picture this situation: it’s the Boxing Day sales, Mary has finally decided to buy that designer bag she’s been wanting for ages (or the latest gadget if you’re a boy - boys don’t really want designer bags, do they?). Ready, set, go! She takes the tube, then the bus, she walks 3/4 of the street and then she sees them... The army of nice old ladies on their mobility scooters, trolleying down the street, and they pass her, but that’s fine. They would never buy that bag. Would they? And then, suddenly, they get inside that store, yes, that designer store. Mary speeds up the pace (not as fast as a scooter but she does her best), gets inside the store, hair in her face, breathless, her heart pumping at 150b/minute and then... Oh nooo, they bought the bag. Nooooo.
Ok. That’s enough. Let’s get serious and talk about science.
My point is that in this story Mary was like normal cells, growing, dividing, and dying (how does that relate to shopping on Boxing Day? Just think that Mary really wanted that bag, like normal cells want to grow). But cancer cells (our old ladies) do that way faster and just grow and divide and grow and divide, forming tumours. They use chaperones (the mobility scooters) to grow faster. And use them all the time. However by doing that, they also forget how to ‘use their legs’ and become dependent on their ‘scooters’. One of our main goals, like I told you before, is to develop drugs that will block the chaperones used by cancer cells, like pinching the scooters’ wheels or blocking their electric system.
So far, we have found that two co-chaperones (there are several chaperones and co-chaperones working together in a cell, like the different parts of a scooter) are involved in the growth and survival of sarcomas and prostate cancer. We showed that if we block them at the same time, we kill part of the cancer cells, making them more sensitive to treatment with the standard chemotherapy.
We are very excited with these results. Given these two co-chaperones are present in many other cancer types, these findings have a real medical implication and this approach could be used broadly.

In summary: cancer cells are essentially normal cells that have overcome their control systems, surpassing their own ‘suicide’ checkpoints and just growing and dividing. The idea of targeting the mechanisms by which they do this is a very efficient way to block cancer development. With this project we aim to design drugs that will efficiently kill cancer cells, leaving normal cells mostly unaffected, reducing the unwanted side effects of current cancer treatment.
 Before I finish, I would like to thank all old ladies with mobility problems (including my sweet sweet grandmother) for being such an inspiration.  Even though I compare you to ruthless cancer cells, it is only for the benefit of science!
 So please, the next time you ask a scientist ‚”what is it again that you do?”, pay attention, they might have actually come up with a decent story to tell you! 
Lets give this a thought, shall we?
SO?? what do you think about it? Do you know now what I do?