Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Working with the enemy

Most of us know what the word ‘chemotherapy’ means today: the use of drugs to treat cancer. A chemotherapeutic agent is a very much a 'no-nonsense' molecule. The killing of a cancerous tumour requires toxic chemicals. Essentially these are poisons. And as we also know, they cause considerable damage to non-cancerous parts of a human being. I once heard an expert in the field say the following: “A cancer drug is any drug that kills more tumors than it does people.” I suppose the margin need not be large to satisfy an terminally ill patient.
Thankfully, from my vantage point I can see just how many thousands of researchers worldwide are working every day to improve these medicines.

I have recently had the pleasure of collaborating with a biology group at the Garvin Research Institute in Sydney. This group focuses on pancreatic cancer. If you must develop cancer, this is the one that you do not want. Despite the wonders of modern medicine, pancreatic cancer is still very nearly a certain death sentence.
To the point: I have been pleasantly surprised by my experience of working with biologists. Generally, chemists and biologists behave like oil and water. There is some degree of contempt. Many chemists feel that we are smarter and harder working than biologists. They probably consider themselves cooler and more relevant. There is not much doubt that they often do smell better then us. With little common ground, we don't have much reason to be friendly. A biologists does not (and can not) do what I do and vice versa. More to the point: I don’t understand what they do. They work with living cells while I work dead substances.
But times seem to be changing. A lot of modern research programs are 'cross-disciplinary'. Sometimes we use fancy terms like 'on the interface' to describe this and get funding. In my field of synthetic chemistry, this is becoming quite common. The fact of the matter is: synthetic organic chemists like to make bioactive molecules. Molecules that have some effect on a living organism. The first significant questions such a chemist must ask are: what do I make and why? During my PhD studies, I was motivated to synthesize target compounds simply because they were ‘complex looking natural products’ and we wished to prove that they could be made synthetically in a lab. A 'chemist vs nature' contest. But today my purpose is quite different. I now make molecules because we think they might kill cancer cells in new or improved ways. Structural complexity is still welcome but it is no longer the point. For me, the biggest practical difference is that this research, unlike my previous work, requires the cooperation (and preferably friendship) of a biologist (or two).

So how does one approach a biologist? Well, to make a long story short: via email.
I'm glad to say that when my supervisor reaches out across the great chem-bio divide, he continually finds that the other side is much closer than we expect. So on with the reserach.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Sad Hot Wind

Kate and I officially cemented our status as a ‘pair’ of traveling volleyballers with a trip to Melbourne, Victoria last weekend for the Vic Open. What was meant to be a carefree sporting trip instead became a sobering brush with a terrible reality. I’m not sure how ‘international’ this news is but on Saturday – our tournament day – in a climactic finish to a half-month long heat wave, the city of Melbourne experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded: a dry 47 Celcius. Appalingly, and in a very rare circumstance, this heat was accompanied by 50 km/h winds. For roughly five hours in the middle of the day, the outdoor experience was surreal. I felt like I was standing in front some giant hot hair dryer. Beach volleyball became quite dangerous and our games were postponed until Sat evening and Sunday. Kate and I were fortunate in an air conditioned hotel room during the worst of it. And to make the experience even stranger, the maximum temperature on the following day (Sunday) was just 23C.

Sadly, one bad Saturday was enough to cause the worst natural disaster in the Aussie history. Sparked and fueled by the extreme heat and wind, dozens of bush fires tore through rural communities in the beautiful state of Victoria. The fires moved very fast. Multiple towns were leveled in hours. Thousands of homes were destroyed. The death toll, now at 170 people, is expected to continue rise for several more days as fire fighters search through the ashes. I can’t even imagine being tasked with such a responsibility. I find it difficult even to think of the many Australians who died in their cars as they tried in vain to outrun the smoke and heat.

It brings an overwhelming sadness. And I can’t help but realize that Kate and I have been living a fortunate life in recent months. We laugh and enjoy the daily things without need even for much formality or reserve much less any serious concerns. The terrible news streaming in from Victoria, of the unsuspecting and the innocent, is sobering. Surely I am meant not only to appreciate and be thankful for the good times but also use them to prepare for the unexpected troubles to come.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Federer - Nadal

To put it simply: if you follow tennis then you must respect Roger Federer. It is an earned respect. He is jaw-dropping impressive on the court, humble and gracious off. Thirteen grand slam wins, and a record four and half years as world number 1. He is a flawless winning machine with that precious quality every athlete wants – to elevate under pressure. When a three hour contest is suddenly tied just seconds before it ends he does not flinch, worry, or make a mistake.

But in 2006 a fiery new Spanish kid named Rafael Nadal smoked Federer on clay in the French open final. Then in 2007 he did it again. And in 2008, he did it in just 108 minutes, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. In 06 and 07 Federer replied by comfortably schooling Nadal in Wimbleton finals. I think at this point many fans were starting to realize something special was happening. In 2008 they played the longest Wimbleton final in history, twelve minutes short of a full five hours, and Nadal won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7. I didn’t see this match but I imagine it is one that an eye witness will have trouble forgetting. It has been called by many the greatest tennis match ever played.

Last night Federer (now 27 years old) and Nadal (23) met in Melbourne for the final of the Australian Open.

On Thursday night Federer had smoked Andy Roddick 3-0 in his semi-final and retired into air-conditioned comfort to wait for Nadal. On Friday night the story was different. Nadal fought to earn his spot in the final by winning the longest match in Aussie Open history - 5 hours and 12 minutes - against another young Spaniard. The temperature in Melbourne has been in the 40’s for the entire two weeks of the tournament. The mid-day court surface could fry an egg. Seriously. Nadal played FIVE HOURS of superb tennis - in the heat – and finished with less than two days to prepare for a final against a human winning machine. Five hours! After leaving centre court Nadal attended to his interview commitments, then some therapy, massage, cold tub (hopefully some good anti-inflamatories) and he did not get to sleep until after 4 am. He then slept all day Saturday, probably waking up briefly for food and physio. And last night he stepped onto centre court and beat Roger Federer. It required 4 hours and 23 minutes and five more sets of sprinting in the heat. Who is this kid?

All tennis fans know that Federer needs just one more grand slam title to tie the Sampras record of 14. Already, many people, myself included consider him to be the best player to ever play the sport. But it is no longer lonely up there for Roger. Nadal now has six grand slam wins at an age at which Federer had just two.

The reason I write is because I would like to share my appreciation for this: Nadal and Federer are both much better than anyone else. If you compare them to the rest of the 'crowd' they both hit far too many winners relative to their errors. They are too fast, too strong and too accurate. It’s not right. It's not really fair. So how lucky are we to have two of them!?
I can’t wait until the next final. Those bandwagon jumpers who are convinced that Federer can no longer beat Nadal are dreaming!