Dr Fiona Larner from the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences might not sound like she’s in the right place to be studying cancer, but Fiona’s work is a testament to how understanding the role of metals in disease takes more than just your run-of-the-mill biologist (sorry, biologists)
Fiona, who spent some time at the Florey Institute last year, has taken the tools more commonly used in geology to investigate how isotope ratios of metals might provide not only insight into how cancer develops, but also ways of catching it long before current medicine is capable of.
If you cast your mind back to those early chemistry classes (I hope) you all took, you might remember the concept of isotopes. Take iron for example. Yes, we know iron is an atom with 26 protons, but there are actually four different types of iron atoms that make up your average knife and fork. The difference is the number of neutrons, which doesn’t change the chemical properties of the atom (well, they kinda do, but we’ll get to that in a second), but each one has a slightly different mass (image from SAHARA at the University of Arizona):
We typically think of the ratios of each isotope to one another as stable, but in fact there are minute differences in these ratios that aren’t normally detectable by the type of analysis we here at Ferrumblogger usual employ.
Fiona’s work has been looking at how certain ligands (that is, how proteins bind metals) are slight preferences for certain isotopes, and how these change in cancer. In a paper she published in Metallomics this year, which has been one of the most read papers in the journal in 2015 (it’s open access, so click on the link and read it for free), she found that breast cancer tissue has a small, but very significant change in the isotopic ratio of zinc:
Most importantly, this change was found early in the disease stage. We all know how devastating breast cancer is, but it is also treatable if caught early, so it’s not hard to see why Fiona’s work is so important. She’s just written an incredibly interesting piece for Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, where she discusses her research in much more detail, though what really caught my eye was this:
The potential advantage of employing high precision isotopic analyses in biological systems has been demonstrated in pilot studies that range across different conditions and elements. However, to prevent these innovative pilot studies becoming a novelty, more comprehensive investigations in collaboration with clinicians and life scientists are needed for both observational studies and those underpinning interpretation of isotopic compositions in human biology. The technological challenge of enabling larger clinical studies now needs to be addressed.
Science is multidisciplinary. The body is a complex mix of not just biology, but also chemistry and physics. No one person can understand them all. With people like Fiona applying skills that are completely foreign to most cancer researchers, maybe the answers to the questions that keep eluding us might just need a little bit of lateral thinking.