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.

No comments: