Alternative cancer therapy modalities?

I often get questions from my friends and family about cancer. In fact, it is not just limited to what I am studying, I get questions about all diseases, and recently I have been bombarded with questions about COVID-19. Too often we find ourselves in conversations with our friends where when something becomes scientific, they automatically look to you, their resident scientist, for answers. It happens to me all the time and I am often puzzled but humbled by how much people trust me and how they think I know everything. Trust me, I do not know everything, and all of us continue to learn every day, either through reading or listening to others speak about their research work.

One of my cousins recently was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and it has been a sad period for the whole family. You can imagine how many questions and debates I have fielded through this. However, as a scientist, I ask myself what solutions I bring to the community and how can I equip myself to educate other people. One of the topics I work(ed) with during my master’s and PhD explores different methods for the treatment of cancer and bacterial infections as opposed to traditional methods of treatment.

One of the methods we explore is photodynamic therapy (PDT). Traditional methods of therapy often have irreversible side effects and can sometimes lead to other illnesses. On the other hand, PDT is a method that specifically targets the cancerous cell without damaging healthy cells or the surrounding tissues. It uses a photosensitizer and light of a specific wavelength to target the cell. In PDT, three things are required, a photosensitizer, light of a specific wavelength and molecular oxygen.

The most common photosensitizers are porphyrins which have to be biocompatible, cytotoxic and soluble in the biological media. Porphyrins are heterocyclic organic compounds with 18 planar pi electrons and hence making them aromatic. The photosensitizer is injected into the patient’s body in the dark, and laser light of a specified wavelength is irradiated to the tumour cells. Because of the molecular oxygen in the cell, this induces the production of singlet oxygen and other radicals which will in turn kill the cancerous cell without any harm to the normal cells.

One advantage of this method is that no noticeable damage is observed on healthy cells. However, not many clinical trials of this method have been conducted in Africa where some cancers such the breast cancer is particularly prevalent. I am continuing the work of using different methods alternative to surgery, chemotherapy or other traditional methods and the work will be published in accredited research journals.

Light at the end of the computer…

Some questions are difficult to answer or even think through.  One of those questions is what has been my worst and best day in academia?

Where do I even start? Don’t get me wrong, I have not had so many challenges that I can’t count them, nor am I ungrateful. But, how do I choose the very worst, or the very best day out of many years as a student and many experiences both good and bad? Let us start with what was probably the worst day…

During my Masters, I can safely admit that I was a workaholic and maybe I will develop into one again. However, I am glad I had a break between that period and my PhD. I worked more than 15 or 16 hours a day and got a maximum of three hours of sleep. Some days were better than others, and between the hectic hours, I went to the gym for at least one hour. I worked from 8am to almost 3 am on good days 8. One of the quotes I often hear used is ‘It takes 21 days to make a habit’ – Unknown, so this working pattern became a habit even though it was excruciating.

I have narrated that I overworked myself. To be honest, I do not know why I did this, but maybe because of peer pressure from my other lab members. Anyway, one night around 3am I packed my backpack ready to go to my room in the residential areas.  In my unconscious state, I went on with my routine like I normally would, shut down my laptop, packed up my mouse, and put away everything else. As I closed the computer, I heard an unfamiliar sound, but I ignored it, I was very tired and just wanted to sleep.

The next morning, I felt as rested as I usually was and came back to campus with all my energy. As I opened my laptop, the first thing I noticed was that the cable of my headset was between my screen and laptop keyboard. Hmmm. I ignored that, and I switched on my laptop. Only to find, to the shock of my life, the compressed headsets had cracked my screen, I do not know where the pressure came from but it did. Mind you, I was broke, fixing a screen would have cost around R1500, I had deadlines, I had stress. I cried, I thought of solutions and I had anxiety. It was one of those stressful situations that I couldn’t even use work to escape from because the ink had spread all over the screen. Fortunately, in a week I fixed it, even though it was one of the longest weeks of my life.

It can only be a coincidence that one of my best days happened just a few months after the incident. As I said I had deadlines, one of those was the submission of my first review paper to a journal, which my supervisor had asked me to a few weeks before my laptop incident. After fixing my computer I did manage to submit it. Then one day, one random morning after all the submissions and editing I received an email that my paper has been accepted for publication. This was my first paper and because I sometimes can be emotional, I cried.

I had previously heard stories of how a paper can be rejected multiple times and get re-submitted, but mine was only rejected by one journal and then accepted. This was one of my highlights as a researcher and it gave me hope to strive for excellence and write more. But most importantly I learned to not let each day define me, either bad or good. The same computer which through my carelessness decided to crack is the same one that helped me write a paper that later even gained attention and won an international award. There is light at the end of the computer…