Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy.
Last time you were ill and the GP prescribed you some medicine to help you get better did you wonder about the people who discovered and developed that treatment? I am one of those people – a drug hunter. I work as a medicinal chemist in a small company in the pharmaceutical industry. The company I work for specialises in what’s known as “structure based drug design”. This means we use our knowledge of the 3D shape of certain proteins in the body (receptors) to design drugs that have a specific shape and functionality to interact specifically with the target of interest. The type of receptors I work on (GPCRs) are involved in passing biochemical messages from outside to inside the cell and it is by influencing this that we are able to treat illness and disease.
At university I obtained a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry – this taught me both the theory and practice of how to build carbon containing molecules (essentially what most drugs are). As a kid I loved building things out of Lego and Meccano and I saw this as the same thing just on a molecular level. Now that I’m in industry I use the skills I learnt in doing synthesis in combination with what I’ve learnt about drug design. It’s very satisfying coming up with an idea that looks like it should work on the computer screen, designing a route towards it, making the molecule and it being an active compound in screening.
Please don’t be under the misapprehension that scientific research is a lone pursuit; I remember arts students at uni being jealous of the social interactions I had in the lab, whereas they were holed up in the library all day by themselves. I work with a large team of people across a broad range of disciplines and a good working relationship with colleagues is key to a project going smoothly. Whilst one must be disciplined and analytical as a scientist, my role also allows me to be creative, which is perhaps not a description which first springs to mind. Also, one of the reasons I chose to become a medicinal chemist was because it gave me the opportunity to care for people. Potentially an idea that I have could lead to the discovery of a drug that treats thousands of people, making a difference to them and their families. The overwhelming majority of the projects that we work on in R&D never make it to market. The challenge going forward is for us to improve the number of new drugs making it into the pharmacy. This will be achieved by advances in in our understanding in molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology and organic chemistry – but only if we have a stream of inquisitive, creative and enthusiastic people choosing to study science.