The Magpie Anthology

Curing the Incurable: My Experience at the Coalface of Cancer Science.

Our latest contributor The Secret Scientist tells us in the first of a series of articles what it’s like to be at the forefront of his research…

Science to me is a marathon consisting of sequential periods of sprinting in opposing directions, often resulting in the feeling that you have travelled absolutely nowhere at all.  You become used to experiment failing and ever-present feeling of self-doubt and imposter’s syndrome that makes you wonder if you actually belong in the job. However, once in a blue moon you are present for a genuine game changing discovery and your faith in your life choices is renewed. In nearly 5 years as a postdoc in cancer research I have been present for precisely 2 of these “eureka” moments.

The most recent of these occurred while running some routine MRI scans on tumour bearing mice. Sorry, I do animal research. Cancer biology would not currently happen without the sacrifices of our furry rodent friends. I do not enjoy this aspect of the work; however, I do believe that the questions we are asking with our rat and mouse models are truly worth the cost.

Mice we were scanning that day had been implanted with an incurable brain tumour called Glioblastoma. Glioblastoma is a particularly cruel cancer, hiding away in parts of the brain that are very difficult to access, and despite the best efforts of my outstanding surgical colleagues, often the prognosis is less than 12 months. On this particular day we were assessing the mouse’s tumour size. In particular, looking to see if we could see any structural changes in the tumour caused by the new treatment that one of the group’s PhD students had been testing. The result was astonishing!

When the scan had finished, we reconstructed the images (MRI is not like a camera or an x-ray so some tricky maths is required to build the image), and this was followed by an audible gasp of amazement in the scanner control room. The image clearly showed that the majority of this incurable tumour had disappeared! What is more, the treatment has since proven to more than double the life expectancy of the tumour bearing mice.

This treatment, which targets a specific gene expression, common to certain types of cancer, is highly promising and a potentially life changing treatment that we are hoping will do well at clinical trials. However, these results are not a sign that the battle is over. It is certainly a huge leap forward towards finding a viable treatment, but this is not necessarily curing the cancer, just reducing the size of the primary tumour. Eventually the mice will die from the disease…

For me the amazing thing about this result is the possibility of extension of life with a good quality of living. I am filled with gratitude to be in the privileged position of witnessing the coalface of cancer research. I have participated in, all be it a very small way, in a study that might reduce the number of times my medical colleagues have to tell a patient they have less than 12 months to live or ultimately give a family more time together. The impact of the science makes the hard work and grind is always worth it, this is what science is about.

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