I was wearing a crimson lab coat just before the epidemic struck, attempting to discover a treatment for blood cancer. Although it may be a bit of an exaggeration. Professor Dominique Bonnet is at the forefront of cancer research, while I was simply accompanying him for the day at the Francis Crick Institute, trying to gain a sense of what a career in the lab entails.
It was a fascinating experience, particularly seeing how hands-on Bonnet’s work could be. Because the substance is so close to the bone marrow in which our blood cells are produced, I discovered that she utilizes collagen sponges in her studies.
Scientists can better monitor how cancer develops and responds to specific treatments by dipping these small sponges in human stromal cells and then putting them into the backs of mice to develop naturally. Although some cancer studies is not as compassionate, I was pleasantly pleased to learn that the sponges may be removed later, leaving the mice unhurt.
Outwitting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma, a new exhibition at the Francis Crick Institute in London, will include many short films shot during my day with Bonnet. It is the first ever exhibition on cancer research in the UK — and the first cancer exhibition to take place inside the context of a functioning scientific lab. It has been postponed owing to the pandemic.
The Crick is an exciting place to be: the open-plan architecture means that the many diverse teams working there often cross paths, exchanging ideas and encouraging cooperation.
I was particularly interested in meeting with Professor Bonnet because I have essential thrombocythemia (ET), a rare blood malignancy in which my bone marrow produces too many platelets, which are crucial for blood clotting. Although ET is incurable, it is a generally benign blood cancer – however it may progress to more serious illnesses like myelofibrosis and acute myeloid leukemia in certain instances (AML).
Bonnet specializes on the latter, and she wants to learn more about why some individuals with my disease get AML while others do not. People like myself, who are “pre-leukemic,” may have some crucial answers.
Because of a personal interest, I’m not the only one participating in the show. George Alagiah, a BBC journalist with stage four colon cancer, is videotaped conversing with Vivian Li, a stem cell and cancer specialist. In order to personalize cancer therapies, she develops “mini-organs.”
In another segment, former lawyer and author Adam Blain speaks with Crick scientist Simon Boulton on the significance of DNA damage in cancer and how Boulton employs small nematode worms as genetic test models. Other topics discussed include reconstructive surgery after breast cancer and the continuing taboos around the illness.
There will also be an immersive audiovisual project that combines amazing microscope images of cancer cells and blood arteries with a soundtrack produced by Mira Calix, a singer and artist.
What fascinates me is the need for a cross-pollination of the arts and sciences in order to further this study. Instead of working inside distinct fields, scientists must think creatively in order to achieve progress, and an open mind is required to interpret results. It’s not simply numbers and facts.
But here’s a statistic: 50% of us will get cancer at some point in our lives. There is, however, a comforting amount of light on the horizon, from tailored treatments that seek to harness a person’s own immune system to combat the illness to novel cell therapies that may become accessible in a similar manner to donated blood in blood banks.
In my case, the development of my cancer is unpredictable, and although there are medicines available to manage my blood levels, there is currently nothing that can consistently prevent it from worsening. I’m hoping that my condition will stay stable until experts at organizations like the Crick Institute figure out a method to beat it.
Research is advancing at a breakneck speed, and knowing that individuals like Dominique are out there every day contributing to the body of knowledge makes me optimistic about the future – and thankful.
Thanks to Tim Jonze at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.