A Day in the Life: “Trying to beat the most insidious cancer in history”

Sara Azeem weighs up what is more difficult between “trying to beat the most insidious cancer in history or entertaining a toddler”.

World Cancer Research Day

24 September is World Cancer Research Day, which raises awareness of the important and lifesaving work done by researchers. As part of this the EACR asked a variety of members to share a day in their life as a cancer researcher.

Name: Sara Abdullah Azeem
Nationality: Pakistani
Place of work: University of Sunderland
Job title: PhD student
How long have you worked there: 2 years

Sara Azeem
Washing membranes with TBST after primary antibody incubation

“Morning flower”. If you are wondering what that is, it’s a built-in alarm sound on my android phone which I’ve just snoozed three times because I AM SO TIRED. Why morning flower? Because it’s the least torturing tone ringing at a very low volume. It also doesn’t wake up my 2 year old. Snoozed three times; means I’m definitely late, so I’ve got to go now.

I don’t have time for breakfast as I am performing “Western blot” today, which is going to take at least a month. Just kidding, it only takes only two days. Western blot is a research technique used to identify and separate proteins in a given sample of tissue homogenate or extract. Based on their molecular weight, the proteins are separated by means of electrophoresis. Fancy! Then, the proteins are transferred to a membrane known as blotting. Sounds scientific? Well, it is clever because on the membrane each band corresponds to a protein.

Why am I looking at proteins in any sample? That brings me to the exciting part. I do get excited when I tell people about my project. I’m working on one of the most lethal brain tumours in the history of humanity.

Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) is the most aggressive, malignant, primary brain tumour. When I say aggressive, it means that every patient of GBM dies and most of them in only three years or less, even with treatment. There are some success stories, and by success I mean some patients who have lived more than three years but eventually they all died in 5-7 years. Without treatment the survival time is just three months. GBMs consist of a sub-population of cells that show “stem-like properties”. These glioblastoma stem-like cells (GSCs) are thought to be responsible for the initiation, and recurrence of GBMs.

Sara Azeem
Sitting at my computer in the PhD student hub

Currently, the standard of care is surgery, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. However, it is ineffective due to tumour resistance. As a result, tumour recurrence is inevitable. Over the last 20 years the survival time has only increased by six months by different therapies. Therefore, there is an URGENT need for new therapeutics. This is where I jump in. Each cell in our body takes nutrients and produces metabolites to generate energy in the body. Thus, the glioblastoma stem-like cells also produce metabolites and the aim of my project is to identify those metabolites as tumour progressions, and their metabolic pathways as targets for therapeutic exploitation.

It sounds simple enough. However, each cell line (tumour taken from a patient) is different from the other. Plus, finding a set of metabolites that are similar in all cell lines is a challenge itself. Never mind growing the cells in vitro and keeping the conditions, i.e. seeding densities, tumour volume and tumour growth under control. I’m working on four different cell lines. I have spent a good year and a half of my research optimizing the conditions. Then, we had to select a sensitive and accurate enough method for metabolite identification, which was also a challenge. Each technique has its pros and cons, but we have decided on using Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS). LC-MS is an analytical technique that combines the physical separation capabilities of liquid chromatography (or HPLC) with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry (MS).

Now that I’ve explained what my aim is, let’s get back to the identification of proteins that I’m doing today. Each protein is a marker for a property of the GBM cells and I’m looking at certain markers in my cell homogenates that correspond to tumour properties such as stemness, DNA damage, DNA damage response, cell signalling, hypoxia and the list goes on. Why am I looking at these properties?  So that I can see these changes as the tumour progresses, along with the metabolite production. Now look at that, it’s time to transfer the proteins on the membrane now and grab some lunch.

Sara Azeem
Running an electrophoresis gel with cell lysates

I’ve put the membranes in the primary antibodies, and they have to incubate overnight. While my membranes are incubating in the cold room, I’ll do some reading and analyse my previous data. There is a lot of data that I get and as a researcher, the key thing (reminded 100 times a week by my supervisor-a truly brilliant soul) is to analyse the data as you go along, so it doesn’t get backlogged.

Ahh! Don’t know what’s harder, trying to beat the most insidious cancer in history or entertaining a toddler. Just when I thought university work was tiring enough and it’s time to go home, another more demanding task is waiting for me there. My son spends all his day with his dad and wakes up from his two-hour nap right when I enter my home. I don’t know how he does it. It’s like his biological clock is somehow linked to my door, and as soon as I open it, I hear him babbling. But no matter how tired I am, cuddling him is the one thing I look forward to all day. Then it’s playing with him, begging him to eat something, running around in the home, cleaning after him. Whilst somehow doing the cooking and washing in between.

God, don’t I sound like a super mom? The day ends with a bath and story-time, and as soon as he closes his eyes, I’m debating whether to have some me-time, sleep or read an article. Sometimes I do reading (on my phone obviously, don’t want to wake the little devil up) and most times (90% of it) I just go to sleep while telling myself “I’ll have time tomorrow”.

How can you get involved with World Cancer Research Day?

1. Sign the World Declaration for Cancer Research

2. On 24 September share a snapshot on social media from a day in your life as a cancer researcher: use #WorldCancerResearchDay

Click here to see more posts about a ‘Day in the Life’ of other cancer researchers.

About Sara:

I am a PhD student at the University of Sunderland. During my Masters in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the University of Central Lancashire, I met some cancer research students. We discussed some articles, which developed my interest in cancer research. I wanted to get into the field. One of my close friend’s mother was recently diagnosed with a brain tumour, and I started to read about it. I came across a PhD opportunity in Cancer research at the University of Sunderland. It was a project led by Dr. Shafiq Ahmed, one of the best in his field. So began my journey to defeat brain tumours. We are currently working on glioblastomas, the most aggressive and invasive brain tumour in humans. We grow cancer cells in labs and subject them to different experiments, trying to figure out the whole mechanism of cancer initiation, progression and ultimately eradication.