Science is Fun

Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson don’t get to have all the science fun. Sure, they’ve made science both accessible and compelling in their work as the Public Faces of Science Stuff. Making science engaging for the average human is a challenge, because so much of it is buried behind a wall of acronyms, chemical formulas, and complex mathematical equations.

The real key to breaking down any complex topic is to figure out a framework that includes all the elements of that topic in an easy to understand story. If that sounds simple to you, I challenge to a round of Up Goer 5, inspired by an xkcd comic by Randall Munroe that broke down Saturn 5 rocket engineering using only “the ten hundred most used words” [spoiler alert: “thousand” isn’t one of those words] in the English language.

I say all this because, on this very site, there’s some really stellar science storytelling going on. Let’s take a short tour, shall we?

Our first stop is the landing page for all the gene stories created and curated by Cure Forward. You could spend a few hours here, and walk away able to give a talk to a community group about genomic research and precision medicine.

Now let’s dive in on a couple of my favorite gene stories. Let’s start with ROS1. I had never heard of ROS1 until I met someone with lung cancer who’s in a clinical trial studying a drug that targets ROS1. She’s still alive today, with no evidence of disease (what we in the cancer community call NED, and NED’s our favorite guy), thanks to the drug being studied. No one knows how long NED will stick around, but every day he does is a win for a cancer patient in a clinical trial who’s got NED in on their friends list.

The story of ROS1 here on the Cure Forward site includes this sentence, “Like trustworthy crossing guards who became corrupted, these fusions changed the normal signal patterns within cells and redirected ‘traffic’ to a route that led to cancer.” That crossing guard analogy makes it pretty clear how ROS1 mutations can kick off the cell mutation that leads to cancer.

Next, let’s take a look at the story of ATM. That story casts ATM as the quality control guy, or repairman, of cell growth and replication, saying that it, “prevents cells with damaged DNA from mutating, and spurs cells with dangerous mutations to commit suicide.” ATM sounds like a pretty tough customer, and if precision medicine research can identify ways to amp up ATM’s positive influence on cell growth, it holds a lot of promise for new cancer treatments.

Now we’ll move on to the story of FLT3. This one doesn’t rely on analogy, it talks about Lukas Wartman, the medical student who was central to discovering how FLT3 worked in his own body, as he battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Lukas was treated for two years after his initial diagnosis in 1999, and his ALL went into remission. He had a relapse in 2008, and was successfully treated with bone marrow transplant from his brother. However, when his cancer recurred again in 2011, one of his clinical partners sequenced Lukas’s genome, and discovered that FLT3 had gone haywire, and was driving the cell mutation causing the ALL recurrence. Treatment with the drug Sutent, and continuing bone marrow treatments, have kept Lukas’s ALL at bay ever since.

Stories are how humans communicate – we tell each other stories to make sense out of our lives, and of the world around us. Read and share the gene stories here on Cure Forward – any one of these stories could be a lifesaver for someone you know!

Casey Quinlan Precision Medicine Advocate

Casey Quinlan Precision Medicine Advocate

Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, then got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007. She used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy.Her speaking calendar for 2016 includes Academy Health’s National Health Policy Conference, the 7th Patient Engagement, Education and Adherence Summit, the ePharma Summit, the Genetic Alliance’s Building Trustworthiness in PCORnet meeting, and Health Datapalooza.