A day in the lab of a cancer researcher: medicinal chemist
Continuing our day in the lab series, we talked to medicinal chemist Dr Amit Nathubhai, whose days are filled with Bunsen burners and bottles of fluorescent liquids. Here he lets us into his day.
07:30 As a senior researcher, my typical day begins at 07:30/08:00. I arrive at the office to check e-mails from team members and make a list to prioritise my day. No day is the same, which keeps my job exiting! I work with a team of scientists who are experts within their field and are abroad. I will use the early morning to reply to my collaborators regarding any recent results obtained.
08:45 I take my list of tasks (usually prepared the evening before) and my lab book to the laboratory. My first experiment involves a chemical reaction that has been accurately designed and planned right down to the exact weight and/or volume of each chemical reagent required. Some reactions have to be conducted in an atmosphere without moisture or oxygen; setting up these reactions may take longer.
I make sure to handle all chemicals and solvents extremely carefully as they can often cause severe harm. Caution, care and attention to detail are taken very seriously when conducting chemistry. Risk assessment and health and safety forms are filled and authorised prior to performing all scientific procedures.
09:30 Once the reaction is running, I set-up new experiments in the biological laboratory to investigate how my novel compounds (that I prepared using organic chemistry) affect the cancerous biological system in question. Some days I perform experiments to assess the effects of my organic molecules against a protein that has shown to cause cancer at elevated levels in humans (normally an enzyme). Other days involve experiments to stop cancer cells form growing.
At present, I am making compounds that block the activity of an enzyme called tankyrase which is involved in cancer. To evaluate how well my compounds are at stopping the function of tankyrase, I perform an experiment which involves adding various concentrations of the compounds to the enzyme. These experiments can take between 3-5 hours, with some breaks in between.
In between running this experiment, I get back to the chemistry laboratory and check on the chemical reaction I set up earlier. I have to decide whether the reaction has completed, is progressing as it should, needs further addition of reagents, needs more energy for the reaction to progress (by heating it) or can be left to react.
10:30 I do not generally have set tea or lunch breaks as my experiments need constant monitoring. If I do have a chance, I might go to the office and check the literature for any exciting advances in research and drug development, synthesis of new molecules, and respond to any e-mails from my colleagues regarding our project. I then go back to the biological lab and attend to the biological experiment.
12:30 If I get a chance to have a lunch break I normally only take 20 to 30 minutes. During this time I might look at funding opportunities for more projects, and review the literature regarding cancer research.
13:00 It’s back into the biological laboratory to finish off the enzyme experiment which involves adding more biochemical reagents and measuring the results of the experiment using a machine that can read the absorbance of the enzymatic/cell reaction. The machine will record the intensity of the colour produced by the reaction by measuring the absorbance. In general, the lower the absorbance (less colour) the more effective my compound was at stopping the function of the enzyme or stopping cancer cell growth (if I was performing cell-based assays).
16:30 Back to the chemistry lab again to check on the progress of the chemical reaction I put on that morning. If the reaction is complete, I need to isolate and purify the mixture of compounds produced by the reaction. There are no standard procedures, so I have to think carefully about the precise mechanistic chemical pathway of that reaction. For example, is the compound stable in acid or base, water sensitive, volatile? I don’t want to risk ruining all the effort I have put in so far. I will then use a procedure that is suitable for that particular reaction and work towards isolating the key chemical compound.
18:00 My day is not finished yet - I head to the office and study the raw data I recorded from the enzyme (or cancer cell) experiment I did earlier. I have to convert the absorbance numbers into graphs and calculate how effective compounds prepared in the chemistry lab were at inhibiting our enzyme or reducing cancer cell growth. By this time it is 19:30 and I’m getting hungry!
20:00 By now, I have made a list of tasks and experiments for the next day and I’m ready for dinner. However, like many others, I never stop thinking about developing new strategies towards combating cancer and the development of useful anticancer drugs. Often, postdoctoral fellows like myself have to invent logical ways and develop methods towards cancer treatment. We are always striving to write new proposals and apply for grants and opportunities to receive funding to facilitate projects. Most projects run for 2-3 years so it is important that we write proposals towards the next stage, in order to have a chance at working within the field of research. Without funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, working towards new cures for cancer would not be possible.
Dr Amit Nathubhai is a Worldwide Cancer Research-funded postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Michael Threadgill at the University of Bath, England.
Read more about Professor Michael Threadgill's Worldwide Cancer Research project designing new anti-cancer drugs.
Not only are we proud to fund some of the best researchers in the world, but we are amazed at the lengths to which some of them go to join in with our fundraising efforts. Professor Mike Threadgill and Dr Amit Nathubhai are always busy in the lab, but for the past two years have taken a day out of the lab to join students in abseiling 200ft next to the Clifton Suspension Bridge to raise money for more research. The total has already passed £3000, with more to come.