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.