What better way to open the first blog post of this wonderful society that will bring together people from all walks of science right here at Otago University? It must have been fate, that Nature should be talking about these things just while we are getting ready for the year ahead.
Just as no gene acts in isolation, and no person is truly an independent agent within society, neither is any science. Chemistry cosies up with biology which cures cancer with physics that explains geology which can tell us things about past chemistry, biology, and some physics. Cancer is affected by genetics, certainly, but physics plays a large role in how tumours grow, especially in metastasis. When you think about it, physics plays a large role in how everything grows; we’re taller in the morning than the evening due to the time spent lying down allowing our spine to expand from where it was squished to due to gravity.
By allowing physicists to play with biology, we get all sorts of fancy equipment too. There’s this thing called an optical stretcher that can measure how much a cell can be deformed. This increases as a cell gets more aggressive and more cancerous, which should make biopsies much easier to determine the nature of quickly.
So that’s pretty cool. As a geneticist, I have something of a duty to be slightly miffed about the focus moving away from oncogenes, proto-oncogenes, and all that jazz; but as a person, I’m pretty stoked that we’re getting people from diverse fields doing this research. Cancer might be “a genetic diseases”, but once it happens we have all sorts of possible solutions and diagnostic options at our fingertips.
Sticking in the same issue of Nature, because the table of contents gets emailed to me and I’ve only had one coffee today, but also because themes are fun, one of the fancy new cancer treatments is the use of nanoparticles. (also, there’s a subheading that’s a Doctor Who reference, so this article is my favourite.) To my eyes, they look a bit like tiny viruses, and all the bells and whistles seem to be a bit virus-like too (see below): the cancer-binding ligand, the squiggly stuff on the outside, the important stuff in the middle… it might just be superficial but that just gets me onto something that isn’t in this issue of nature.
Despite the fact that “gene therapy” isn’t two words you tend to hear much outside quite limited circles, I’m always surprised when people haven’t heard about it. I found out about gene therapy when I was 12, and was Aghast that it was not being used to solve All Of The World’s Problems. The basic idea is you fix a broken gene by putting a good gene into a virus specific for the cells you want to fix, and then the virus does all the work.
The virus is broken, of course, so it can’t infect anything else, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a ridiculous film (protip: gene therapy features). This nanoparticle idea above has some chat about using silencing RNA to turn cancer genes off. If we know common mutations in genes, the silencing RNA might only turn cancer genes off, rather than something that generally is useful but sometimes goes a bit crazy and cancer happens.
This is a pretty decent idea. The first time period of gene therapy research was when we were working out all the creases still, so you had events like the trial in France that had to be halted because two of the patients got leukemia, although seven appeared to be cured. More recently, the main stumbling block for gene therapy is that every different sequence has to be treated like a separate drug by the FDA. This is a severe setback for diseases like Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, where a third of all mutations are de novo (new in the patient, and likely to be unique). If the nanoparticle researchers can make a small number of silencing RNAs that can affect a large range of cancer, that truly would be a great leap forward.
In conclusion, great collaborations result in great things, like Eminem and Doctor Dre, or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or any of the scientists working together over the world today. You don’t have to be from the same area to make wonderful things, especially if “things” includes “friendship”.
Sophia, your blogging queen.