human, being

Brain dump
May 20, 2009, 1:51 pm
Filed under: work | Tags: , , ,

I’m working on a big old article for my magazine at work. It’s about cancer stem cells. You know, those 1 in 10,000,000 cells in a cancer tumor that *may* give rise to a tumor and explain metastasis and recurrence.

The idea is this: tumor stem cells are like normal stem cells that have gone haywire. In skin, a normal stem cell creates a daughter cell and another stem cell to build up your dermis so that your skin can rejuvenate itself every three weeks or so. But in cancer–particularly in blood cancer and in cancer involving epithelial cells (skin, lung, stomach, colon, breast)–something goes haywire in that normal stem cell. Instead of making one daughter cell and one new stem cell, it makes a bunch of new broken stem cells that then make a bunch of broken daughter cells that become a tumor.

The daughter cells are the ones that get killed off with chemo and radiation and immunotherapies. But the stem cells are somehow resistant to all these poisons. They can go into hiding when the tumor is under attack and come back later, when the rest of the tumor is dead, to make new tumors in new places in the body.

Some scientists think the answer to cancer is to kill the stem cells so the tumors don’t come back.; and that maybe as few as one single genetically damaged stem cell can give rise to a tumor. Others don’t think cancer stem cells exist at all, that any cell can create a tumor.

At my university, we have a whole stem cell research and regenerative medicine program that has many, many scientists who believe that cancer stem cells do exist. And they’re doing some very interesting science–some of it so groundbreaking that it very well may shake up the way that bone marrow transplants and solid organ transplants are done.

They have drugs that are killing stem cells in leukemia, causing mice to live up to one year after a 7-day course of substances that the National Cancer Institute put on a shelf years ago because they “didn’t work”. (that happens a lot in cancer research)

One scientist has figured out how to give a mouse a human immune system so they can implant a tumor from the immune system donor, which means instead of trying to figure out how to treat human beings with cancer by trying it on mouse tumors first, they’ll be able to experiment on human tumors in human-like mice.

It’s all very cool. Very interesting. And very, very painful to my brain.

So far, I’ve interviewed six scientists, all of whom use terms with me like hematapoietic and xenograft model and tumorigenic capacity and syngeneic mouse model. I sit in front of these highly educated, very very smart people and I really don’t want to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT.  Because I’ve been doing this job for 2 whole years, and by now, I should have absorbed through osmosis the 14 years of biology and chemistry and immunology and pathology and *ology that I didn’t take.

I do ask clarifying questions. And they hand me these “easy to understand” articles to help me, which I need a translator to follow.

Then I hit Google and Wikipedia and the National Cancer Institute and PubMed and American Cancer Society and a half-dozen other websites doing ancillary research so I can write a 1,700-2,000 word article that makes some sort of sense to a lay audience.

And that my friends, is the crux of what I do for a living. And why I constantly have a headache.

There are tens and tens of thousands of scientists around the world, all working on these tiny aspects of cancer, trying to understand gene signaling pathways and how hormone receptors work or don’t work in driving cancer, and why some cells commit suicide and some don’t. There’s Wnt, and mRNA. There’s EGFR and IGFR. There’s KRAS and PTen and … POP! Oh, that was my brain.

Now, I’m a smart girl. I got a perfect score on my ACT and a 1480 on my SAT. But on days like this, when I’m trying to bullshit my way through a highly scientific article that I really have NO PURPOSE WRITING, I feel so incredibly dumb.

Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

Because not only do I get to try to understand the science, I get to try to tell the STORY of the science. That’s supposed to be the fun part. I like telling stories. Hell, telling stories is how I spend more than half my life. But I’ve been reading and re-reading my notes on this one and I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Because I can’t figure out how to tell the story.

It’s the story of a burgeoning cancer stem cell research program that has solid funding in an age where solid research funding just doesn’t exist. It’s the story of a perfect storm: having the right people and the right technology in place at the right time to maybe, just maybe, conquer a small corner of the cancer world.

Since I’m struggling with writing the actual story, with quotes and insights and putting all the pieces of the puzzle together,  I came over here to blog about it. And it helped. Because now I think I know how I can at least get the story started.


1 Comment so far
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Hehehe! I am actually quite envious of your career. I am trying to break in to feature writing myself and so far so good with a few tiny nibbles on the bait. You are an inspiration!

And if it is any consolation to you, I actually used to be a scientist (albiet an ecologist, not a medico) and I have no idea what they are on about half the time either! 😀

Comment by Squilla

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