Will answer every question he's been asked!
EducationThe Douay Martyrs School (Secondary) 2000-2007, The University of Reading (Undergraduate) 2007-2011, The University of Bristol (PhD) 2012-present
QualificationsGCSE: 3A*s & 7As, AS Level: History (C), A-Level: Maths (B), Applied ICT (B), Chemistry (D… with an E at AS!), Undergraduate Masters Degree: First Class MChem Chemistry with honours. Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (MRSC). I’m also about to complete my PhD in Chemistry in the next few months!
Work HistoryWoolworths (16-17yo), A Garden Centre (17-18yo), Reading Uni Students Union Bar / Pub (18-22yo), A random country pub (19-22yo), CEM Analytical Services (2011-2012, Junior Analyst), STEM Ambassador (2012-present), CIC Cartuja – Sevilla, Spain (2014), Kyoto University, Japan (2014), Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research – Basel, Switzerland (2015)
Current JobFinal Year PhD Student at the Bristol Chemical Synthesis Centre for Doctoral Training
The University of Bristol
My Work: making new anti-cancer drugs from sugars that don’t kill healthy cells.
Cancer is one of the biggest killers in the developed world. It’s responsible for 28% of deaths in the UK, so 1 in every 3 people will die from cancer. it’s also predicted that 1 in 2 people born after 1960 will contract some form of cancer in their lifetime (read more: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/risk ).
But what exactly is cancer?
Cancer is a disease which is caused by mutations that happen to the cells inside your body. When a cell becomes cancerous, lots of small changes happen. This is why cancer remains such a challenging disease to treat. You have to find a way of killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. This is very hard because the two cells used to be identical! This means that we need to look at all of the small changes that happen to cancer cells, to try and work out ways of targeting these small changes to kill the cancer cells without affecting any of the very similar healthy cells. This is a tough challenge!
One of these changes makes the cells start growing uncontrollably. This also causes more problems for treatments, as some cancer cells can divide as quickly as 24 hours. This means that if left unchecked the cancer tumor will double in size every day! This is why cancer drugs (called chemotherapy drugs) have to be 100% effective. Even if you have a drug that can kill 99.9% of cancer cells, that will always leave a few cells which can continue to grow and divide, and the tumor will regrow over time.
What about current chemotherapy drugs?
Most current chemotherapy drugs just aren’t that good at selectively killing cancer cells. They usually also kill healthy cells too, and the general idea is to target cells that divide quickly, with the hope of killing the cancer cells before also killing the person. This is why people normally loose their hair when undergoing chemotherapy – you hair is one of the fastest growing tissues in your body, so the drugs also stop your hair from growing.
The good news is that there are thousands of scientists all over the world working on many different ways to treat cancer. A lot of research into new cancer drugs involves trying to selectively kill the cancer cells, and leave healthy cells alone! Already we have come very far, just compare one of the first chemotherapy drugs, Mustine to a modern medicine such as Imatinib. Mustine is also known as ‘mustard gas’ and is a chemical weapon that also happens to be used as an anti-cancer drug! It’s horribly toxic. Imatinib is a new selective anti-cancer drug, and has saved a great many peoples lives whilst being much less toxic than older drugs. The downside? It’s still under patent protection and is quite expensive (but that’s another story!)
Many non selective anti-cancer drugs work by targeting DNA (like Mustine), and stop the two strands of your DNA from separating, which stops your cells from dividing and growing. These bind to all of the DNA in your body though, stopping healthy cells from dividing too.
What am I working on?
I am working on targeting a specific DNA sequence inside your body. These sequences, called telomeres are used by an enzyme called telomerase that is only present in cancer cells. Telomerase is used by ~85% of cancers to make them immortal. Yep, did you know that cancer cells are immortal? As long as they get the food they need to survive, they will never die from old age. And it’s all due to this enzyme, telomerase! I am making small molecules that can ‘bind’ to these DNA sequences, making them form a special structure called a G-quadruplex. This special structure stops the enzyme from working, and causes damage to the DNA leading to the death of the cell. The best part? Normal cells don’t have telomerase as we are mortal, so these structures shouldn’t affect healthy cells, making this in theory a selective anti-cancer treatment.
This is an extremely new area of research though. We didn’t know that these G-quadruplex structures even exist inside our bodies until 2013! We still don’t know exactly what they are for, though they occur in almost all of our genes. Currently, there are no drugs available that work by this mechanism. This is because there are two man problems currently:
Getting them to target one G-quadruplex: There are over 700,000 different G-quadruplex DNA structures inside our genome, and we only want to bind to one of them! Making a molecule that can only bind to one G-quadruplex is quite a big challenge.
Getting them to go where you want: It’s very hard to make these molecules to go to the right locations in your body, and go inside your cells, and get to the right place inside your cells to work. This is also quite a big problem to solve!
I am using sugars to help solve these problems. Sugars are molecules with rings, and have lots of hydroxyl groups (OHs). These can be used to help them bind to DNA, and different sugars can potentially bind to different DNA structures, so we just need to find the right combination of sugars to work. Sugars are also the main source of energy for our bodies, so we are used to transporting them around and taking them to specific loactions inside your cells. Again, we just need to find the right combination of sugars to do this!
How much progress have I made?
I’ve been working on this for 3.5 years now. I’ve managed to discover the most selective molecule ever known to bind to the G-quadruplex structure in your telomeres. The down side is that this molecule isn’t toxic to cancer cells… We think this is because they are being degraded inside the cell. Now, we are working on trying to fix this problem! I’ve also discovered another molecule which is quite selective for the same G-quadruplex. This molecule appears to be more active than the conventional chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, yet is 3 times less toxic to healthy cells! We are looking into how it does this at the moment too.
Do you have any questions? Fire away!
My Typical Day: Planning experiments, doing experiments and then trying to work out what happened in those experiments!
Being a scientist means choosing your own working hours. Some days I come in later, and others I come in early. Typically I’ll work from 9am until 6pm.
The first thing I’ll say is that every day is different. No two days are the same, and it all depends on how my research is going and what I was doing the day before! Overall I’ll be making new molecules, piece by piece by doing reactions. This is kind of like playing with lego, except your working with extremely small things that you cannot even see! You build up each molecule, one brick at a time till you have your finished product. This involves planning new experiments, setting them up, then when the reactions are done I’ll purify them to get just the molecule I want on it’s own! Then I’ll analyse them to check they are what I think they are, and then test them in other experiments.
I’m a synthetic organic chemist, which basically means that I like building things out of carbon atoms. I would say I spend roughly 50% of my time in the office and 50% of my time in the lab, so if you don’t like the idea of sitting at a desk all day, then being a scientist is quite good! 😀 My lab time is split between doing reactions (“making things”) and analyzing / testing things that I’ve made.
A typical day could be as follows:
I’ll start the day at my desk, checking my emails and catching up on new publications and developments in my area of research. Keeping up to date about new developments is important! Then, I’ll probably get some new data about the compounds I was making the day before to analyze (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy or NMR and Mass Spec for those of you who are doing A-Levels in Chemistry). Analyzing new data to work out if a reaction has worked can best be described as like trying to solve a puzzle, except you don’t know the answer because nobody has ever seen this particular puzzle before.
Once I’m confident that I have made what I tried to make the day before, I can start planning a new experiment with that molecule. Once it’s all planned out, I head into the lab to my fume hood to set up the reaction. The best way to describe synthetic chemistry is like cooking, but with lots of very expensive strange pieces of machinery, and you definitely don’t want to eat what you’ve made at the end!
This involves getting out all manner if interesting pieces of glassware, and then mixing up various toxic, explosive, flammable and downright weird chemicals together in that glassware. This is what most people think of when they think of a chemist, though there are many other types of chemist… we don’t all mix stuff up in glassware!
Once I’ve set up some reactions, I can have lunch, and do some other stuff. That might be writing a presentation for a conference (big meeting full of scientists), or writing a paper on your research!
In the afternoon, my reaction might be done so I’ll be back in the lab, and trying to isolate my newly made molecule. This involved quite a wide range of different techniques and other chemicals etc… For me it normally ends with me using our £40,000 Preparative High Performance Liquid Chromatography System, which is basically a fancy machine that can separate different molecules from each other. Once I have that, I will remove all of the solvent using another piece of fancy equipment called a rotary evaporator.
I might have to go and deal with some of the cancer cells that I’ve been growing too… This can be described as a mixture between growing your own plants and having your own children… you have to feed them and take care of them otherwise they will stop growing and die!
At the end of my day, I’ll probably be analyzing the products of my reactions, by running experiments on one of Bristol University’s £500,000+ NMR spectrometers, ready to get the data back the next day. You get to use quite a lot of expensive equipment as a scientist!
So that’s a typical day for me. This doesn’t even mention all of the other things that I might be doing though, like running modelling simulations on a supercomputer, testing my compounds on the cancer cell lines, giving presentations to school children or other scientists, teaching undergraduate students in teaching labs or testing my compounds in all kinds of interesting assays! There is seriously so many different things to do that you are never bored!
What's the best thing you've ever done in your career?
I Met the Emperor of Japan!