“Hey, what do you do?”
I think I answer this question differently every single time I’m asked. I sit under a thousand umbrella terms that all mean something slightly different or overlapping, and give off impressions or ideas to different people, that is not always clear to me, nor them.
“Im a…..scientist, a PhD student, a doctoral candidate, a researcher, a molecular biologist, a cell biologist, a cancer researcher, a tumor biologist, a pre-clinician….”
I hereby apologize to all chance encounters, and strangers met at parties, and friends of friends with polite half-hearted enquiries.
I apologize two fold; firstly, because these terms give no real information about my daily work. Every person that hears them formulates a different version of reality in their own head based on pervious expectations and connotations. They do not suffice to answer the reality, and are therefore irrelevant and unhelpful to the question. But, secondly, and worse, they actually potentiate a way of thinking that I viscerally despise; the notion that science is an ivory tower pursuit, of which only those on the “inside” are allowed to know about. That only big-brained illegible-waffle-speaking insiders are able to talk about. Surrounded by unhelpful terms, and unnecessary acronyms that scream “You wouldn’t understaaaaand, COMMONER”, or “It’s none of your business”. The terms I offer to you when I’m asked what I do, out of half-ass attempts to save you from my perceived boredom inflicting nerd words, might actually be doing so much worse. It might give you the impression that you are not allowed, invited or wanted in the discussion, which is complete BULLCRAP, lets just get that said.
In reality, science is, and should be, a bunch of misfits, norm-o’s, who have held on to an intrinsic curiosity about the world around them. A load of adults who haven’t grown out of asking childlike annoying endless questions “But why, but why, but whyyyyy?”. And science NEEDS everyone to chat about it, it neeeeds people to ask their questions, or offer their unique perspective. Science BEGS to be talked about over introductory beers at parties. (I’m sorry science). The less people that talk and question and wonder and think, the worse off science and the world is. 7.4 billion brains hold huge potential, and any notions that refrain all of these brains from thinking they are allowed to participate in asking these questions, make the world, quite frankly, stupider.
With that said, and for forgiveness from science, and to all who have asked me;
I work on trying to develop new strategies to target the Insulin-like growth-factor-type 1 receptor in cancer.
“Wait, no, don’t leave….Let me try again!”
Individual cells listen very carefully to messages from the rest of the body. Receptors, that sit on the surface of every cell, act like the ears of the cell, collecting information from outside about how they should behave; grow, divide, die etc. In this very controlled manner, the overall wellbeing of the body can be maintained and all cells can act with a common goal; keeping you happy, healthy and awesome. Cancer cells, on the other hand, acquire ways to become selfish. Instead of listening to messages provided by the body, they act to soley survive and proliferate themselves, often to the detriment of the rest
of the body. One way in which cancer cells achieve this, is by changing the way their cell surface receptors operate.
Growth factor receptors are a type of receptor that bind to “growth factors”, essentially little messages from the body that tell the cells to grow. Knowing what we know about cancer cells growing uncontrollably, it is logical that these receptors become hijacked or dysfunctional in cancer. There are different ways in which this can occur – one such way is receptor overexpression, where there are maaaaaany more receptors than a normal cell should have. You may have heard of HER2 positive breast cancer? That’s a cancer that overexpresses the HER2 growth factor receptor. Overexpression = greater sensitivity. If you cover a cell with “ears” it can pick up even a tiny “grow” whisper that a normal cell would not respond to. Another growth factor receptor dysfunction are mutations within the actual receptor. A normal receptor flips between “OFF” and “ON” when it receives an outside signal to do so, and therefore passes this message into the cell through signal cascades. Dysfunctional receptors in cancer can be stuck in the “ON” position due to a mutation, and therefore fire “GROW! GROW! GROW!” signals inside the cell when no such signal is given outside. We call such mutations “constitutively active”.
I work with a particular receptor that sits on the surface of the cell, called the insulin-like growth factor type 1 receptor (and the award for catchiest name ever goes to…) or the IGF-1R for short.
The IGF-1R is abit more complicated (..like most things in biology..), in that it doesn’t exhibit any of these normal irregularities – it is not normally overexpressed, it is not normally mutated, and yet it is critical for some cancers development and growth. Therefore there must be something else going wrong. My research group are studying the function and dysfunction of this receptor in an attempt to try to design ways to target it and treat cancers which depend on it – in particular; Melanoma and Ewing’s Sarcoma (a childhood bone and soft tissue cancer.)