In 2030, cancer will kill an estimated 12 million people per year. Leif Eriksson is trying to find a cure for the plague of our time.
There are many reasons why so many people fall victim to cancer. Increased levels of environmental toxins is one, changed lifestyles and the fact that we live much longer than in the past are others.
‘We’re putting more additives in the food, using more chemicals in everyday life and sunbathing more,’ says Leif Eriksson, professor in physical chemistry at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology.
HE HAS ALWAYS been interested in the natural sciences. He has an eye for details and has an obvious talent for theory and math. People tend to become good at things they enjoy, he says.
‘I’m involved in several cancer projects. There’s a lot going on in cancer research right now,’ says Eriksson.
He points to some pictures of designed molecules on his computer screen. His explanations of what we are looking at are easy to follow. It is obvious that he is used to spreading information at different levels. Tomorrow he will teach chemistry to fourth graders.
Round, colourful so-called liposomes appear on the screen. It is possible to add drugs to the microscopic fat balls and then inject them into the body or apply them on the skin. The liposomes melt when they reach the cell wall.
‘We’re trying to figure out the perfect size of the balls and how much of the drugs they can store. We are making good progress.’
Quick and effective diagnosis is important in cancer treatment. In the future, aptamers will speed up the detection of diseased cells. This is another area of interest to Eriksson.
APTAMER molecules bind to specific substances. The way they bind to a certain substance depends on the structure of the substance, and this will be useful for cancer detection since cancer cells have a different structure than healthy cells. In addition, a certain aptamer can bind to a certain type of cancer cell – it’s like two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly with each other.
‘Right now we’re building a database, a library where we can match aptamers with different types of cancer cells.’
One problem with cancer is that it develops and spreads through communication between proteins,’ says Eriksson. ‘One way to deal with this would be to design aptamers that can block the communication.’
ALL FORMS OF cancer are on the rise. Skin cancer is increasing by as much as 60 per cent per decade. We sunbathe too much and need to deal with the problem in all possible ways, says Leif Eriksson. One million Americans are diagnosed each year, and skin cancer is the largest single expense item in Australian healthcare.
‘If you live in Australia, you’ll get skin cancer sooner or later. The ozone layer is thin and the sun very strong.’
THE RESEARCHERS HAVE studied how the UV radiation causes changes in the DNA. The cells have an amazing ability to repair themselves, but they are damaged hundreds of times every minute and there is a limit to what the system can handle.
‘Sometimes the cells make a mistake. This can damage the genetic material – damage that is reproduced as the cells keep dividing. The disease may take a long time to develop. If you burned your skin as a child, you may realise you have skin cancer 50 years later.’
Skin patch for skin cancer
Leif Eriksson and a group of colleagues have developed a unique patch filled with substances that fight basalioma, actinic keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma – all serious forms of skin cancer. The skin patch will become available shortly.