By Andrea Schlitt
Cancer /ˈkansər/ noun: An abnormal growth of cells which tend to proliferate in an uncontrolled way and in some cases, spread
A simple definition of a common word, and yet when a patient hears this word in their diagnosis it is anything but simple. It’s lifeless, almost surreal, as the magnanimity of the issue truly comes into light. In that moment, the doctor becomes the patient’s guide through their next few months or even years of treatment and hopefully, recovery.
But it doesn’t stop with that one patient. The issue of cancer research involves a network of patients and their own unique diagnoses until some consensus can be reached on the causes of the formation of cancer cells. Researchers, entrepreneurs and computer programmers alike come together to tackle one of the world’s most unexpected disease.
And it all begins with our generation.
A new solution
For junior Cassandra Lem, it all started with a magazine exploring the lesser known aspects of cancer. Lem read about important but often neglected problems such as women’s cancer in third world countries. It was one of her only experiences with cancer research, but she knew that it was an issue she wanted to contribute to solving.
“I just found it really interesting because it’s something that we don’t really think about a lot,” Lem said. “You would think that there are tons of scientists out there doing research but the magazine listed a lot of really valid reasons as to why there’s not a lot of research.”
One of those reasons is the lack of unorthodox solutions in treating childhood cancer. Lem recalls reading an article on a girl whose dad discovered an experimental treatment which the doctors rejected as a solution, but ultimately helped slow her progression of cancer.
And that’s what inspired her to write about childhood cancer in her essay.
“It made me think like wow, there are a lot of kids with cancer out there and they could benefit from these trials with unorthodox drugs,” Lem said. “All it takes is to just spread the word and to get the word out there more.”
As Lem began to write her essay, she felt confident about her approach to the topic, which ultimately paid off. She was one of the winners of the competition and received an opportunity to conduct a research project with a mentoring scientist, along with $1500 for expenses and a Chromebook. Although Lem hasn’t been assigned a scientist yet, she is already looking into what she wants to do in the future with her business experience.
“I want to […] start a nonprofit to get the word out about childhood cancer research,” Lem said, “because even after doing all the research we still need everybody, not just the scientists, to be involved with [research] so we can get more kids involved in these trials and save more lives.”
Sophomore Aditi Gnanasekar always knew that she wanted to be a doctor. It was second grade when her parents bought her a human anatomy book that to this day she still finds extremely interesting. This interest carried on to her freshman year at MVHS, and her decision to take the STEM class as her elective.
So when she found out about the opportunity to write an essay about cancer research, she jumped at the opportunity and wrote about a project she conducted in that STEM class. She investigated a particular protein called the aurora b kinase and its relationship to cancer.
“I was like, I wonder if something happened to this protein, like pretend you didn’t have it or if you had a mutation that prevented the phosphorylation of the protein, then would this lead to cancer?” Gnanasekar said. “That was what my experiment was and it did actually lead to cancer.”
Gnanasekar used the results of her project to talk about what she could do in the future with cancer research, specifically implementing a system to keep track of all observations made on diagnosing cancer patients to speed up the process.
After finding out that she had won, she was extremely excited to see what the future could hold with her passion for science.
“It’s always been my long-sought dream to go into medicine or pursue a career in research or bio because that’s what interests me,” Gnanasekar said, “and since cancer is such a prevalent issue today I feel like it’s an issue that I want to be a part of, and if I can make a change I should try to make it.”
The right program
Junior Dhanya Mahesh took JAVA in freshman year on a whim. She didn’t know that the subject would interest her, nor did ever imagine writing about its application to cancer research.
As she began to develop a passion in computer science, she tried to find ways to look at it in a broader sense and find more uses in the real world.
“I just liked the feeling of completing something like after you try really hard with all these different ways of writing the program,” Mahesh said, “and when it finally works it feels really good.”
After deciding to apply, Mahesh wrote about how she would focus on diagnosing cancer through emphasizing the connection to programming. She believes that finding cancer at the early stages will ease the treatment process and also open up new ways to find treatments.
One unique way to perform an early diagnosis is through computer science.
“I do a lot of computer science and I think that it’s important to also focus on the biology aspect of it,” Mahesh said. “Computers could help us with diagnosis through the use of huge supercomputers and MRI scans.”
And the significance of programming for cancer research can be seen everywhere. Scientists may attempt to personalize treatments by sequencing a piece of DNA in seconds––what once took years to do. The ability to gather and synthesize large amounts of data aids cancer holds endless possibilities for finding a cure, and that’s what Mahesh hopes can be accomplished.
Reaching a consensus
Cancer research is something that will continue to push and inspire doctors to find a solution to one of the most complex issues in the science community. But it’s not just the doctors who aspire to do so. It’s the entrepreneurs, the researchers, the programmers, the high school students. And through the work of Lem, Gnanasekar, and Mahesh, the research on cancer will continue advance as more and more people will be able to find their individual cures to one of the most complex diseases that exists.