Why did you become a chemist?
Chemistry fascinated me as early as primary school, where I had a very good teacher, Urszula Łukaszewicz. She always had some chemicals put aside for us and showed us wonderful experiments and was able to interest us in the subject. Although it wasn’t like I always knew I wanted to be a chemist. For a long time chemistry, and my liking for chemistry as well, struggled against my liking for mathematics. Even in May, in my final year of school, I didn’t know where to hand in my documents, not even what university or what course. At the last moment, and fairly spontaneously at that, I decided it would be chemistry not mathematics. Mathematics comes in useful in chemistry and maybe the fact that I don’t have to prove any mathematical theorems now has allowed me to keep my liking for mathematics. Chemistry seemed closer to real life. It seemed to me when choosing chemistry that I would be able to do something more tangible for the benefit of humanity as a chemist than I could as a mathematician.
We know then that you work for the benefit of humanity, in a team under Professor Janusz Rak, perfecting anti-cancer treatments, so what does humanity have to thank you for?
Yes, that is the general idea of our whole team’s work. Because the whole team is working on this, not just me. Cooperation is key. We’re working on new radiosensitizers, i.e. compounds which can make cancer cells sensitive to radiation during cancer treatment. Radiation alone is not enough for the therapy to be effective. So we use compounds which can increase the effectiveness of the therapy and sensitize cells to radiation. We want to find out how one class of sensitizers works, which is derived from nucleobases. Equipped with a certain knowledge about how these compounds work, we’re trying to find new ones in the same class. After applying this sensitizer, the modified alkali, or nucleoside (the modifications are basically very slight since one atom of hydrogen is replaced by an atom of bromide, or by a simple nonorganic group like the rhodanate) ‘enters’ the cell and does not display any cytotoxic activity. Instead it is compatible with cell enzymes, and therefore can embed itself into the normal thread of the cancer cell’s DNA. Due to the fact that cancer cells multiply more rapidly – such a ‘Trojan horse’ enters cancer cells so effectively that nothing bad happens until the tumour is irradiated. During this irradiation, the modification is activated and the cell is much more sensitive to irradiation. Radiation goes directly to the cells via the products of the radiolysis of water. These products in turn react with the modified DNA to form radicals inside these same threads. Then a series of reactions in the radicals triggers the destruction of the DNA threads. When we have damaged genetic material in the cancer cells, then at that moment they can be destroyed, thereby assisting in the radiotherapy.
Is a certain type of sensitizer assigned to a certain type of cancer or do they work on any kind of cancer?
There are different classes of sensitizers. One of these classes is modified nucleosides, another is oxygen mimetics, i.e. compounds which ‘imitate’ oxygen in oxygen-deficient situations. This deficiency is characteristic of some cancer cells. We are specifically concentrating on the class of radiosensitizers derived from nucleobases. We do have plans to ‘get round’ to other classes thanks to a grant which Professor Janusz Rak has recently received. When it comes to derivative nucleobases, then they are dedicated to different types of cancer. Solid tumours, which are limited to, for example, a certain organ, are definitely sensitive to this therapy. With bromouracil, the standard example of this type of compound, the research had been conducted as early as the 1960s. There were also clinical tests, but these did not indicate that it is the best radiosensitizer. Maybe it was just a question of the nature of the test group (the group of patients undergoing therapy). In any case, we can achieve different results by looking at substances in the cell line or at animals, and others again by considering the human organism. A substance works, in the radiosensitizing sense, but we cannot predict whether or not it will have severe side effects. We have only just started research into derived rhodanide. The idea came about around two years ago, on a piece of paper, you might say, when we were analysing how this class of radiosensitizer works. A colleague managed to synthesise this compound and at the moment we are trying to understand how it works, on the one hand, and to test it on the next ‘levels of difficulty’, so not just by modelling methods and not just for individual particles. We’re looking to see if we can incorporate this compound into cells, multiply it into the DNA thread and then check how it reacts to the presence of radioactivity.
What was the impulse behind you tackling this very specialisation?
When I finished university there was nothing like a specialisation – every chemist in my year graduated in general chemistry, and I don’t even think this is written on the diploma. On the other hand, we had freedom of choice as regards the department where we wanted to write the MA. My choice of the Department of Physical Chemistry came about because I couldn’t decide if I preferred lab work or modelling reactions, i.e. investigating them at the level of particles. It is fascinating to discover how a reaction takes place. Because I couldn’t make up my mind, I chose a department which had a laboratory and a computer modelling laboratory. My promotor promised that I would be able to switch branches at any time if I wanted to. As it turned out, there was an interesting project to be done in the field of computer chemistry. I liked it and so reached the conclusion that I could see myself in this specialisation. It’s more ‘looking at particles’ than ‘mixing things in test-tubes’. Some might think it’s not ‘proper’ chemistry, but I am well aware that in the Biological Sensitizer Laboratory we work as a team, and everyone in that team has their own area they’re good at and in this field we are working for the common good and a common goal – the creation of a new sensitizer.
What are your hobbies?
My hobby is singing and dancing. For many years, since my third year of studies to be precise, I’ve been in the University of Gdańsk’s Jantar Song and Dance Ensemble and this is where I find fulfilment. I takes up a lot of my time. We rehearse twice a week and we go to festivals and concerts. It’s also a groups of friends I can’t help meeting. It’s a form of a break since you can’t concentrate on science all the time. When I go into that room and dance the oberek or the polka for two hours, the brain starts working in a different way, different connections are made. Then, or when I’m cycling home or during any physical exertion, it’s easier to get my head around certain things. Sometimes you can sit at work in front of the computer or a note-book for hours and you can’t think of anything, and then something shifts in your head and an idea is born. I think everybody needs a break of some kind from everyday life – it would be tough without one. I would personally find it hard without Jantar and I hope I can keep going there for a long time to come.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski