Scientists are known to be hard working professionals, but if we ask a lawyer or a teacher what we do exactly, most likely they will not be able to answer. The presence of scientific news is frequent in our daily lives, and still we live in a time when parents refuse to vaccinate their children. This must mean something, right? It certainly means some people don’t trust their doctors, but what about scientists? Do people trust us? Do they even know us?
During a Scientific Communication PhD course here at Lund University, I encountered an interesting term I was not familiar with at the time: Popular Science. Popular science is a tool that aims to make science more accessible and less elitist. It contributes to a better understanding of a particular scientific topic, by being simple and engaging. It is something that surely brings advantages to both parts involved. It builds trust among the public when it comes to the scientific field and for us scientists, it is quite obvious – everyone likes to have their work acknowledged. Just like musicians don’t make music to be appreciated only by other musicians, but mostly by music listeners…
At this PhD course, we were challenged to write a popular science article about our project or something involved in it. Although it may seem easy at first, it is hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes and reflect whether your words are going to catch their attention and interest. I decided to write about the concept of immune evasion in cancer and one of the most currently used types of treatment in melanoma: immunotherapy. Most likely, the majority of the general public that is already familiar with the existence of immunotherapy does not know what is behind it and why it is so helpful in treating cancer. Here is the best way I found to contribute towards that knowledge:
Melanoma treatment – is the immune system a hero or a villain?
The immune system is like the army of the human organism – protecting it against strange pathogens, such as the flu virus, or even against misbehaving self-tissue, like cancer. Just like in a war zone, immune cells risk their safety to fight the enemy, infiltrating the tumour. But like a real soldier, the tumour knows how to attack as well as to defend itself, and evade the killing strategies of the immune system. Clever as it is, it can deactivate the immune army, making it easier to spread the malignancy. This biological event allowed researchers to develop strategies to empower the immune system to fight cancer again, just like it should be. These strategies compose the so-called immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy has gone through revolutionary advances in the last decade, permitting the successful treatment of some types of cancer. The majority of successful cases were registered in melanoma patients. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, and the most lethal form of it. Just like any type of cancer, each melanoma tumour is different and has its own biological features. As a result of this, immunotherapy is very effective in some patients, but responsible for severe side effects in others. Thus, there is a compelling need to better identify and select patients who may benefit from such immune therapies.
Unfortunately, despite all the knowledge the scientific community has regarding immune mechanisms against cancer, there is still a lot more to dig in. A better understanding of how the immune system works to fight cancer and a detailed characterisation of the different immune cells that infiltrate a particular patient’s tumour, would enable more efficient treatments.
Do you think if I tried to explain what immunotherapy is by mentioning signalling pathways, immune checkpoints or cytokines, my message would be effectively transmitted? Probably not. The reader would lose interest as soon as he encountered the first unknown and complicated word. After all, what we, scientists do is so unfamiliar and complicated. Shouldn’t we be more proactive, in order to change this belief? Let’s work on it.