What biologists actually do!

Often, when people find out what I cancer research for a living they look pretty shocked.  I think it’s because I don’t look old, or male enough to be doing “proper science” the next question I get is often “what do you actually do?” I think that this might often be a thinly veiled attempt to check that there is a more official looking person behind the scenes – however, thankfully I am more competent than I look!  Anyhow, this gave me an idea for a blog post.  So here is my quick guide, to what scientists do, not the experimental details, but the basic point behind biology research.

Some people might accuse me of being overly pragmatic here, but the point to most biological research is to answer a biological problem, in this case I’ll use getting a cancer drug to clinic as an example.  The first step in this process is what we call “basic science” scientists in this field work to answer fundamental questions about biology, such as detailing the role of a specific protein or molecule within a cell, or determining how a process in the body works.  These scientists may or may not have a specific disease focus, but their research is crucial to inform subsequent work.  Once there is sufficient knowledge about a disease or molecule then, depending upon its role, it might be considered to be a potential target for a drug.  In cancer therapeutics usually these are processes which are important for the survival of cancer cells but not for healthy cells in the body.  If something looks like a good drug target then scientists check that inhibiting this has the desired effect in cells this is known as “target validation”.  Subsequently drugs are designed to target this molecule and these are then tested in cells to check that they have the effects that you would expect from a drug like this – i.e. the ability to kill cancer cells!  Also, at this stage, any “off-target” effects are studied and the population most likely to respond to the drug identified this is termed “pre-clinical pharmacology”.  Subsequently the drugs undergo further safety and efficacy testing prior to being administered to humans in a clinical trial.