Shortly before the pandemic hit, I found myself dressed in a red lab coat, trying to find a cure for blood cancer. Although that might be overstating things a little. It’s Professor Dominique Bonnet who is at the cutting edge of cancer research, whereas I was just tagging along for a day at the Francis Crick Institute, hoping to get a feel for what a career in the laboratory looks like.
It was a fascinating experience, especially seeing how Bonnet’s work could be surprisingly hands-on. I learned that she uses sponges of collagen in her research because the material is so similar to the bone marrow in which our blood cells are made. By dipping these tiny sponges into human stromal cells and then inserting them into the backs of mice to develop naturally, scientists are better able to monitor how cancer progresses and reacts to certain interventions. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sponges can be removed afterwards, leaving the mice unharmed, although of course other cancer research is not able to be as humane.
A short film made of my day with Bonnet is one of several to go on display at Outwitting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma, a new exhibition at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Delayed until now due to the pandemic, it is the first ever exhibition on cancer research in the UK – and the first cancer exhibition to take place within the setting of a working science lab. The Crick is certainly an inspiring building to be inside: its open-plan design means that the many different teams beavering away bump into each other frequently, sharing ideas and fostering collaboration.
I had a special interest in speaking to Professor Bonnet because I have a rare blood cancer called essential thrombocythemia (ET) – put simply, it means my bone marrow makes too many platelets, which are responsible for the blood clotting. Although ET is incurable, it is relatively benign as blood cancers go – yet in some cases it will transform into nastier diseases such as myelofibrosis and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Bonnet is an expert in the latter, and she hopes to find out more about why some people with my condition get AML and others don’t. People who are “pre-leukemic” such as me might hold some important answers.
I’m not the only one involved in the exhibition because of a personal interest. BBC journalist George Alagiah, who is living with stage four bowel cancer, is filmed chatting to stem cell and cancer scientist Vivian Li. She creates “mini-organs” in her quest to personalise cancer treatments. Elsewhere former lawyer and author Adam Blain talks to Crick scientist Simon Boulton about the role of DNA damage in causing cancer and how Boulton uses tiny nematode worms as models for genetic tests. Other conversations tackle reconstructive surgery after breast cancer and the taboos that still exist around discussing the disease. And there will be an immersive audiovisual installation that weaves together stunning microscopy imagery of cancer cells and blood vessels alongside a soundscape created by musician and artist Mira Calix.
What’s fascinating to me is the crossover between arts and science that has to occur in order to move this research forward. Rather than working within separate disciplines, scientists really need to think creatively in order to make advances, while an open mind to interpret findings is essential. It’s not just hard facts and figures.
But here is a fact and a figure: half of us will develop cancer in our lifetime. Yet from personalised treatments that aim to harness a person’s own immune system to fight the disease, to new cell therapies that might become available in a similar way to donated blood in blood banks, there’s a reassuring amount of light on the horizon.
As for me, the progression of my cancer isn’t entirely predictable – and although there are medications available to control my blood counts, at present there is nothing that can reliably stop it progressing into something worse. I hope my condition remains stable until the scientists working at places like the Crick institute find a way to outsmart it. Research is moving at a tremendous pace, and knowing that people like Dominique are out there, adding to the knowledge base each day, makes me feel hopeful for the future – and extremely grateful.
Outwitting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma is at the Francis Crick Institute, London, from 25 September until July 2022.