By Zahraa Al-Ahmady, who is a research scientist at the Nanomedicine Lab, University of Manchester.
Cancer is a disease with a heavy emotional burden and part of this is due to the often severe side effects of the drugs that are used in treatment. Moreover, many of the treatments that we have available do not guarantee a cure, creating sometimes a lose-lose situation; basically suffering from horrible side effects and not achieving a meaningful response. Many of us will know, have known, or have lost someone to cancer. It is becoming quite clear that the battle against cancer cannot be won solely with what we already have and we need a new arsenal that is made of ‘smarter drugs’.
As a research scientist I find it fascinating to explore new ways to deliver cancer-blasting drugs to tumours without exposing the rest of the body to those toxic chemicals. My interest lies in microscopically small, rounded drug carriers called liposomes. Those are tiny pouches made of fat on the outside, while their water-based centre is loaded with drugs. The fat covering layer will shield the body from the unwanted effects of the anticancer drug. With the help of special ‘homing’ proteins that I graft on the surface of the liposomes I get them directed specifically at cancer cells. Now, this is the most exciting bit. As those globules settle in the cancer area, I need to figure out ways to release the drug from the liposome in order to do its job and kill the cancer cells. This is done by applying a beam of external heat to the area where the cancer is and that allows the drugs to ‘hatch’ out and ensure that only target the cancer cells are treated and the horrible side effects will become a story of the past.
Translating that effort into clinical practice will take time and many hurdles will have to be overcome but we are getting closer. The book of defeating cancer has so many chapters but many more pages are being written and rewritten. To be one of the many authors in that book, to be a contributor to the conclusion that would see it finished with ‘The End’ and ‘Happily ever after’ is the fuel that keeps and flame inside me burning.
As a female scientist, overcoming the stereotypes that come with my job was not easy but I am determined to work this out. We want the world to know that behind the closed lab doors and inside those smudgy white coats, we are working very hard every day to achieve our goals. Our message is ‘hang on, we are getting there’.