Let’s talk about Stress…

Hello to you all! 

I’m surprised to be in such a positive mood on such a gloomy day, as it raining heavily outside while I’m typing out these words. Nil the Cancer Researcher is back! (You know you are a nerd when you give yourself a science-y nickname). Please don’t judge for my attempt to look cool (ha-ha). I got you by the title didn’t I? Because everyone is stressed, especially at this time of the semester. But we aren’t going to talk about that kind of stress e.g. stress about exams, family issues, relationship dramas (although at some point we can talk about those too, if you want, I can give you some peer support 🙂 ). Right now, without further ado, let’s get into the cancer research. In my previous two blog posts I tried to ease you into the world of cancer research under the supervision of my marvellous supervisor, Dr. Lisi Meira. We already discussed the general aspects of the project, involving the study of stress response in cancer cells. Furthermore, we went into more depth by covering alkylating agents last week. Now it is time to talk about the cellular response to the damage caused by those alkylating agents. In simple words, damaged DNA can lead to Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) stress. 

But what is ER and why is it important?

We, humans, are made up of about 37.2 trillion cells (WOW!) (Greshko, 2016). I am not going to overcomplicate life for you by going down the road of talking about the different types of cells and their functions in the human body, so let’s focus on the ‘animal/human cell’ that you are probably familiar with from your high school Biology. The compartments of each cell are called organelles. The organelles are like little machines, which do important jobs like processing information that is received from both the intracellular and extracellular (so, basically from inside the cell itself and outside the cell, respectively) environment. By doing so, they provide us with the abilities necessary to function and live. Inside one of those organelles, the nucleus, is found our genetics material, the DNA, which we talked about last week. Attached to the nucleus, is another organelle, namely, the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER). The nucleus and the ER are like an arm and a hand, if you will. In this analogy the nucleus would be the hand, giving you the ability to touch and feel things, while the arm is the ER, which has a supporting role to the hand, as it is what keeps your hand attached to your body. So, the nucleus and the ER share the same cellular fluid known as cytoplasm. Keep this in mind, as it is important for the function of ER. There are two types of ER, the smooth (SER) and the rough (RER) ER. What  differentiates the RER from the SER is the presence of ribosomes on the RER, which are micro-machines for making proteins using the information they receive from the nucleus and the construction materials from the cytoplasm by a process of translating genetic information encoded in messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). So, the functions of the RER include the described above process of protein synthesis, which is followed by protein folding, whereas the function of SER is lipid synthesis, resulting in the production of fatty acids and lipoproteins, which we utilise as sources of energy. Calcium storage is a function of both SER and RER (Bscb.org, n.d.). But why is calcium storage important? Well, firstly, calcium actively roaming inside the cell is an activator of signalling pathways, but calcium also plays a crucial role in determining if a cell survives or dies, as excessive calcium in the cytoplasm (cellular fluid) can start a whole cascade signalling events, which eventually result in programmed cell death, called apoptosis. Even though ‘cell death’ sounds cruel, it is necessary and happens quite often. Apoptosis doesn’t result in cells bursting and releasing all of their contents to the surrounding cells, which is good. However, the ER  is a sensitive guy and is susceptible to stressors, the main one of which is something called the unfolded protein response (UPR). I will discuss UPR in my next blog post, which will be my final one as part of this assessment for my communicating science module. 

For now what I want you to understand is that in moderation, UPR has been found to be ‘good’ for cells because it keeps them regulated and protected against cell death. Try to associate the daily stress in your life and how it keeps you going and motivated to be successful. The same is true for our cells. However, when in excess, UPR was found to be cytotoxic (a fancy word for saying harmful), as it contributes to cell death. Understanding cell death is very important in cancer research, as it can be applied to areas such as development of chemotherapy drugs, or reducing the toxicity of the present drugs. Specifically, what we want is to discover new targets for cancer research involving the ER stress, so that potentially new chemotherapy drugs can be developed. 

Before you go…

As the University of Surrey MSci Biochemistry cohort even though we do a broad range of bioscience subjects, we are united by our innate curiosity of the science of life from the cellular to the organismal level. Our academic staff (major shoutout to Dr. Lisi Meira, Ian Bailey, Prof. John McVey and all of our lecturers) are extremely passionate about their specific fields and are the main reason that we get excited about our studies. We wouldn’t be shaped as the scientists we are today without their guidance and continuous support throughout the years. I know that I am speaking on behalf of the all of the students, who  were extremely lucky to have been taught by these extraordinary academics when I say that they deserve a big ‘THANK YOU’. 

I don’t know what got into me recently but I felt necessary to get out this sentimental message. Maybe it was the realisation that the first semester is almost over and in the blink of an eye it will be time for graduation and saying goodbye to all of these people who have been part of my professional and personal life for four years.

As a very inspiring person says to us all of the time,

Take care and keep being awesome!

Nil xx

Useful and interesting sources:

Greshko, M. (2016). How Many Cells Are in the Human Body—And How Many Microbes?. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/01/160111-microbiome-estimate-count-ratio-human-health-science/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2019].

Bscb.org. (n.d.). Ribosome | British Society for Cell Biology. [online] Available at: https://bscb.org/learning-resources/softcell-e-learning/ribosome/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2019].