*Note : This article is the result of a journalistic study visit at Bilkent University,Ankara, Turkey , within the Research LAbs for TEaching journalists EU-funded project .

Cancer research –a long way to go

Cancer is a deadly disease that can affect anyone (no matter age, gender or social status) and any part of the body. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people will develop cancer in their lifetime. In 2004, 7.4 million people died because of cancer.

Scientifically speaking, cancer is about modified cells that start growing uncontrollably and eventually invade and destroy adjacent tissues. Cancer treatment is still in the developing phase, with great efforts invested into quite modest results.

Developing anti-cancer drugs

Chemotherapy is just one of the many anti-cancer treatment options, along surgery or radiotherapy. At this moment, it is impossible to say whether one method is superior to another, because each cancer type requires a different treatment.

Chemotherapy is about drugs (chemicals) that are effective in killing cancer cells. Developing a new drug is a very long and complicated process, continuously postponed by the difficulty of testing new drugs’ effects on humans’ health.

In search of liver cancer treatment

Professor Rengul Cetin-Atalay is a passionate researcher of Bilkent University’s Genetics and Molecular Biology Department. She and her young female researchers’ team are working on testing anti-cancer drugs.

Cancer is a lethal disease with many faces: each cancer type has its own specific; therefore it is not possible to develop a drug that would cure all forms of cancer. The researchers at Bilkent University focus on screening possible drug candidates for liver cancer.

Liver cancer kills approximately one million people worldwide each year. It has been found that liver cancer is diagnosed more in men than in women, most often by a ratio of two to one. The average age of diagnosis is between 60 and 70 years old.
If the cancer is discovered during the early stages, it is possible for the patient to be cured; however, his cancer must not have spread, and he must be strong enough to undergo surgery. About 30 percent of those who undergo surgery in the early stages in order to remove the tumor are able to survive up to 5 years, and in rare cases, are cured.
People who are diagnosed when they are in the advanced stages of liver cancer are generally given 3 to 4 months to live. For those who undergo treatment, the average life expectancy is 6 to 18 months.

Statistics seem pretty much hopeless. Yet, scientists working on developing anti-cancer drugs advice people to be patient:

” We don’t start with the aim of curing cancer. There’s a sky-scrapper and we’re just putting the first brick. It’s a very long process”, says Professor Ms. Rengul Atalay.

Where do the findings go?

Dr. Rengul Atalay stresses that her work at Bilkent University is just basic research. “Our work may or may not have applications into human health. Everything we are doing here must be further processed”.

She goes on explaining:” We are struggling to identify which proteins are inhibited by the drug candidates we are studying here. Then, we publish our results in scientific publications such as the Investigational New Drugs Journal . After this, it’s up to other scientists to begin the tests on animals and humans, if they are interested in developing that specific chemical into a drug”.

Of course, the pharmaceutical industry may not be interested to invest in the developing; testing and producing the drug candidates that are studied in Bilkent University’s labs.

High specialization equals being powerless over other people’ work

Do you believe it’s scientists’ duty to make sure the results of their work are used the right way? Think again. Scientists are so focused on their difficult lab work, that they lack both the time and the power to follow the whole research process from the beginning to the end.

Researchers are experts in their specific investigative area. To give you just one example of a technical issue scientists are struggling to understand: the same chemical may be effective in one cancer type, but harmful in another one. Post-doc Ms. Mine Muncuoglu gives the example of retinoic acid. “Retinoic acid is effective in killing breast cancer cells, but makes liver cancer cells proliferate”, she explains.

A “profane” may think scientists working on a certain issue are responsible and involved in all the phases of that research. Nothing more wrong. Anti-cancer research is carried out by many different teams of researchers around the world who focus on specific phases of the drug development process.

For example, Ms. Rengul Atalay‘s team members don’t produce the drugs themselves. They just analyze the drug candidates that different universities around the world send them.

True, their work enables them to understand what a good anti-cancer drug should be made of, so they maintain tight collaborations with the Pharmaceutical Departments of other Universities. “Medicine Faculty researchers from Ankara University come to visit us every two weeks. We are working together, even if we are not in the same building”, explains post-doc Mine Muncuoglu for whom high specialization is the natural and only right way of doing research work.

The link between young scientists, small molecules, and hope

Professor Rengul Atalay‘s team is entirely made of young female Turkish researchers. “We love our job”, says Dr. Atalay. “We are trying to bring our best contribution to anti-cancer research. We are aware we have to go step by step, little by little, in order to bring something new”, she adds.

Academia scientific research has many advantages, the greatest being that it involves young, passionate Science students. 4th year BA students already gain the right to get involved in research work. However, they will fully enjoy their “young researchers” status only in their Master and PHD years. However, most of these youth discovered their scientific passion as early as their high school years.” I was still a high school student when I read a book for children about DNA. I was fascinated. I decided to become a Biology researcher”, remembers MA student Irem Durmaz.

Professor Rengul Atalay is optimistic about the future. She hopes to keep discovering “small cytotoxic molecules”. She sounds pretty enthusiastic about it. “We started working on drug discovery here, at Bilkent University only four years ago and we are satisfied with our results until now.”

The most important thing people should know is that there are scientists around the world working on cancer cure right now. So, there’s hope.”, Dr. Atalay concludes.

Profesor Rengul Atalay
Into the lab: Profesor Rengul Atalay, and young researchers Irem Durmaz and Mine Muncuoglu

It’s a chemical reaction…

Teaching science to young minds

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