Editors: Whit Froehlich, John Charpentier, and Scott Barolo
Cervical cancer has been getting much more attention as of late, partly due to the HBO adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. As a survivor of the same type of cancer that took Henrietta’s life and led to the development of the HeLa cell line, I found that Skloot’s book resonated deeply with me. My diagnosis compelled me to learn more about cervical cancer, which is one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of the cells lining the cervix, which acts like the doorway to the uterus. The cervix lining is mostly made up of two different cell types. Lining the outer cervix that faces the vagina are squamous cells, which are flat in shape, while the open passage of the cervix which leads into the uterus is lined by glandular cells, which are blockier in shape and produce mucus. Cancer can arise from either of these cell types; however, squamous cell cancers are the more frequent.
Most cervical cancers are caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is commonly known as the virus that causes genital warts, but what many don’t realize is that there are over a dozen types of sexually transmitted HPVs, and only a few of them result in genital warts. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) highlight that persistent infection with certain HPV strains, especially types 16 and 18, is the major cause of most cervical cancer cases.
MiSciWriters member Kristina Lenn chatted with Nick Wigginton, the assistant vice president of research at the University of Michigan, about the importance of communication among researchers and the big responsibility science writers carry in the current political climate.
Anyone who has ever done collaborative research can list the benefits of being able to work with another group and learn about the cultural differences between researchers. Dr. Nick Wigginton knows better than anyone else how important communication is to successful collaborations.
Prior to his tenure at Michigan, Dr. Wigginton received his doctorate in Earth Science, and his dissertation was a collaborative effort by his department, physics, chemistry, and biology. This interdisciplinary gauntlet gave him the tools he needed to succeed as an editor for Science magazine where he needed to address the research and cultures of multiple departments.
Editors: Sarah Kearns, Ellyn Schinke, and Shweta Ramdas
Taking out the trash is a despised chore. It’s smelly and heavy, and you have to get off the comfortable couch, put on shoes, and take it all the way to the curb. Yet, we do it because we understand that it is important for the health of our homes and neighborhood, and taking out the trash is better than leaving it in the house.
What you might not realize is that your cells also have to take out the trash. In fact, defects in this process often lead to disease. One example is Niemann-Pick disease, which in severe cases causes death in early childhood. Neimann-Pick disease is caused by defective lysosomes, the trash bins of the cell. In order to understand diseases like Niemann-Pick disease, we must first understand lysosomes.
My mom was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She had early-stage breast cancer: tumor size of less than five centimeters, fewer than three cancer-positive lymph nodes in the armpit region, and no cancer-positive lymph nodes nearby. But hers was also an aggressive type of cancer. At the time, I was a graduate student in the States and my parents lived in China, so we talked on the phone every two days about the progress of her treatment. She received surgery, radiation, a tailored drug treatment, and chemotherapy. My mom is tough and stubborn. Most of the time she just mentioned the good news that the cancer had been eliminated. Occasionally, she would say that her life was changed by the cancer treatment: for example, she had to quit her job.
I was shocked by my mom’s diagnosis. She is always physically active and mostly eats vegetables. I barely recognized her after the chemotherapy. She had lost 30 pounds and all of her hair, her skin was pale, and her nails were purple. Her face was unrecognizable because of the weight and hair loss, and she looked almost 20 years older.
My mom is cancer-free now, but she is not the same person that she was. Her appetite is half of what it was before, and she cannot lift heavy things. As a graduate student studying cancer biology, I had learned that chemotherapy would cause side effects like the ones I saw in my mom, including hair loss, vomiting, and nail loss. However, until my mom’s physical appearance and life were transformed by chemotherapy, I didn’t realize the magnitude of its impact on patients. Looking at my mom, I wish that we had better options for patients with early-stage breast cancer so they don’t have to suffer these devastating side effects.
The assassins have a description of their targets, who are hiding in plain sight among the non-combatants. The targets are guerillas who’ve infiltrated the neighborhood, overwhelming the local authorities and fomenting chaos. After only minutes on patrol, the assassins go on the attack, quickly identifying and eliminating the enemy without harming a single bystander.
This scenario may sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s also a good metaphor to describe the activity of engineered immune cells against cancer cells. The assassins are called CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T) cells, and they receive their elite training at the hands of physicians and scientists, who teach them to recognize particular molecules on the surface of tumors.
Editors: Jimmy Brancho, Shweta Ramdas, Bryan Moyers
Think back to the last time you visited your primary care physician. Was the health care provider using a laptop or tablet to take notes and update your health information? In many doctors’ offices across the country your health records have gone digital. In addition to their exciting potential to help doctors’ offices reduce human error and better serve patients, electronic health records (EHRs) also make available a new source of “big data” for researchers.
EHRs are patient-specific digital records your health care provider maintains. The information in your EHR helps your doctor efficiently track your health over time and helps researchers learn more about diseases, which ultimately improves the clinical care your doctor provides to you and other patients. Believe it or not, EHRs from patients like you and me have already helped researchers make discoveries that improve health care for everyone!
As we discussed last time, bacteria that infect the human body face a major challenge: iron, which is essential for bacterial growth, is hard to obtain from human tissues. Many pathogenic bacteria solve this problem by deploying “stealth siderophores,” which steal iron from human iron-binding proteins while evading our defenses. In the battle between humans and pathogenic bacteria, our best weapons, antibiotics, are being weakened by widespread resistance. Is there a way to use bacteria’s need for iron against them?