Women in Science: Crystals leading to discovery of new medicines

LOrealZSL Soapbox 395 199x300 Women in Science: Crystals leading to discovery of new medicinesI must admit that when was invited to speak at last week’s Soapbox Science event on the South Bank in London, I accepted with some trepidation as I have never done such a thing before. But I willingly agreed to participate as I appreciated that this was a very original and great idea.

We scientists get engrossed in our subject and its details, and having to deliver such a ‘speech’ focuses one’s own mind on the purpose and relevance of the research. My goal was to explain why crystals can lead to the design of new medicines.

I started by showing a poster with pictures of beautiful protein crystals looking like sparkling diamonds which I personally grew in my laboratory. My audience could not believe that these crystals were of biological materials that were photographed under a microscope.

I explained that when we get unwell this is often due to the malfunction of proteins. Proteins drive the machinery of our body and are responsible for many of its functions such as oxygen transport, food digestion, muscle movements and many more of our body’s tasks.

Each protein has a different role and its 3-dimensional shape (structure) determines this role – similar to giving the right task to the right person (for example, asking a tall person to take a book off a high shelf and not requesting this from a short person). In order for a medicine to be effective it needs to target the specific protein that is involved in the disease that is being tackled and to influence its activity, by either blocking or enhancing it. To achieve this we first need to know exactly what the protein looks like, in other words to determine its shape.

In their natural state, proteins are liquid (for example in the blood), unlike solids that have a definite shape and size due to orderly arrangement of their molecules.  Hence in order to enable us to visualise their shapes clearly, we need to change the proteins’ liquid state to anordered solid (or semi-solid). In other words, a crystal which can then be x-rayed and its structure determined.

The expressions “crystal clear” and “to crystallise thoughts” stem from the science of crystals.  It requires effort to organise thoughts and ideas, and so too, we need to ‘convince’ the proteins to depart from the liquid state in which they are comfortable and form crystals.Proteins being biological materials are sensitive to external conditions and cannot be made to form crystals by harsh means that are applied to producing crystals of diamonds and gems such as high pressures or temperatures.

Growing a crystal requires tender conditions, similar to the formation of a baby.  First, two molecules are brought together and if they connect well you get a healthy embryo which then turns into a healthy baby.  If however, too many molecules come together, which can happen duringin-vitro fertilisation (IVF), they may compete with each other and lead to difficulties. As with babies, the aim is to get one or two single large crystals, and one of the major problems in getting such crystals is too many molecules coming together,thereby leading to numerous small crystals. I described some ways in which we try to overcome thisincluding sending proteins to crystallise in outer space,and I gave examples of proteins that we work on that are connected to cancer therapy and other diseases.

I went on to show what the information obtained from x-raying crystals can give and had a picture with me showing a ribosome, the structure of which was recently awarded the Nobel prize.

The soapbox experience turned out to be a lively discussion in which the people around me were asking questions and voicing their take on crystals, medicine and science in general.I felt privileged to be asked to speak at this event and I congratulate the organisersand the sponsors who made it such fun to participate.

Professor Naomi Chayen is Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Imperial College London

She is working with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science.

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  • Colin Nicholas

    Women may not be able to become priests because of ancient superstitions. But so what?
    It’s much more important to become a scientist and to understand reality – and to work with what is real – than dabbling with the unreal, and the wished for.  Good on you Professor.

  • whosaysso

    Wow – the New Age notion of crystals growing can be applied to proteins! Interesting

  • Guest

    a little bit of women in science history might not have been amiss?; not even a passing reference here to dorothy hodgkin et al, so that the uninitiated might have been left believing that this approach was brand new for women or indeed anyone, in science?; just because there were so few women in cutting edge science 50+ years ago doesnt mean that there were none!; for good science, no matter how popular, we should never forget to give our references?

  • Guest

    presumably you are being sarcastic- if not, wake up and see above!

  • Guest

    i begin to suspect that we have retreated into the next dark age – unless this is also a sarcastic posting; we are talking here about a technique, developed by women ( and a few nice calm men) which has been on the go since before i graduated in 1955!

  • Colin Nicholas

    I’m not being sarcastic.  Many religions don’t allow women to become priests. There are ancient beliefs that say women are inferior to men. Science – which is all about getting things right – has no such irrational beliefs. Women are seen as being equal to men, which naturally – they are; and shows yet again how religion gets things wrong. In my opinion religion gets everything wrong.
    If you go back and read again my earlier post, you’ll see I made a straightforward comment. No sarcasm.

  • Colin Nicholas

    @gyp:disqus ;

    Just stumbled upon this interesting piece by Fisk. Check it out.

    “Robert Fisk: The crimewave that shames the world.”

  • Guest

    uh-uh; science is about asking the right questions, about always being prepared to revise your theories, and about never forgetting to cite your references; otherwise it doesnt work; i am proud to have been educated and trained in that school;
    the greatest crystallographer of the 20th century, nobel prizewinner dorothy hodgkin (she of the structure of , amongst others, vitamin B12) was jokingly accused by her male peers of doing 3 dimensional knitting, and just smiled and got on;  i am sad to read this article, which doesnt give her a mention and apparently leaves at least some readers with the impression that its all brand new celebrity bad-tempered squeaky-voiced fairies in the bottom of the garden 21st century feminist stuff

  • Guest

    yes, nothing new here – the human race is not a particularly nice one;
    i cannot help thinking that we need to have many more reminders of how (relatively) not so long ago, brutal practices towards subservient women, homosexuals, children, servants, serfs, peasants, disabled, mentally deficient and/or the poverty stricken, were common in ‘civilised’ europe; and how we in saintly UK inc still tolerate fartoo many equivalent practices, including  towards other species, without batting a sensitive eyelid…
     the only difference between them and us is historical time

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