News

From the College of Natural Sciences
Font size: +

Fight Cancer, She Must

Fight Cancer, She Must

Robed in tie-dye lab coat, graduate student Norah Ashoura meticulously guides her pipette while explaining what Star Wars has to do with the innovative research into cancer treatments coming from the George Georgiou lab group.

Image and video credits: Christian Benavides

Norah joined the Cell and Molecular Biology graduate program over two years ago. Before moving to Austin, she grew up in humid Florida (despite being, as she says, genealogically "100% desert" with parents from Tunisia and Lebanon) and studied biochemistry at Florida Institute of Technology on the Space Coast.

Ashoura recently won the Science in Plain English contest, sponsored by UT's Science Communications Interest Group, by giving remarks comparing cancer to Darth Vader and the hapless immune system to Jedi Knights in the Star Wars universe. She won a trip to one of the largest gatherings of scientists, which is happening this week, the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

What are you researching in the lab?

I work in cancer immunotherapy, generating medicine that will allow patients to use their own immune systems to fight cancer.

Bodies are programmed to tell when a cell is good or bad. Cancer cells are obviously bad but have developed many mechanisms to avoid being noticed. One of the mechanisms that we focus on in this lab is kynurenine, a molecule that is over-produced by many cancers, especially aggressive ones. Kynurenine acts to "turn off" immune cells, preventing them from distinguishing a cancer cell from a healthy cell.

We are developing a drug that chews up kynurenine, unmasking cancer's shield and allowing the immune system to do what it is designed to do after millions and millions of years of evolution: attack.

What led you to the contest and to the analogy you used for your research?

I really enjoy simplifying my work into something that is elegant. I love relaying science to the general public—the beneficiaries who fund much of the work. A Pew Research-AAAS study found that people trust that scientists are intelligent but don't trust scientists on science-related issues; I think that the public's enthusiasm has been reduced by propaganda against sciences, like the misinformation about climate change. I see my involvement in science communication — like the Science in Plain English contest—as a way to help change this culture.

To explain the uniqueness of what we are doing, I used a Star Wars analogy and imagined cancer as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Both have a secret identity and are generally bad….The rest of a patient's body is similar to everyone else in the Star Wars universe: they have no idea that the interloper is cancerous. The enzyme—our treatment—gives the knowledge of the movie audience back to the body, allowing it to activate and assault the cancer as it should.

What do you do for fun?

I speak in Elvish! But seriously, I really enjoy being in this lab. It is a microcosm of the best aspects of scientific community; everyone is super nice, familial, and has so much expertise. I like to camp, paint, and read, especially fantasy books. I also invest my energy in debate, which I started in high school in Fort Lauderdale. Crockett High School, which when compared to other schools is not brimming with opportunity, did not have a team, so I volunteer as a debate coach. I work with English teacher Amanda Tremaine, and we now have ten students and hope to have them in competition by the end of the year.

Watch Norah deliver her winning remarks: 

New, Ultra-Flexible Probes Form Reliable, Scar-Fre...
Chemistry Professor Wins NSF CAREER Award

Comments 11

 
Guest - Roahn on Tuesday, 21 March 2017 22:32

Hmmmm....it seems to me that she missed the metaphor completely. If the rebellion knew that Darth Vader was Anakin it would not have mattered at all. They always knew Vader was evil. The fact that he was evil AND that he was Anakin Skywalker doesn't change anything at all.

The correct metaphor, it seems to me, is that Palpatine was a Dark Lord of the Sith. If Palpatine's identity was exposed sooner, then the Jedi and the Senate could have acted to prevent the destruction of the Republic.

Hmmmm....it seems to me that she missed the metaphor completely. If the rebellion knew that Darth Vader was Anakin it would not have mattered at all. They always knew Vader was evil. The fact that he was evil AND that he was Anakin Skywalker doesn't change anything at all. The correct metaphor, it seems to me, is that Palpatine was a Dark Lord of the Sith. If Palpatine's identity was exposed sooner, then the Jedi and the Senate could have acted to prevent the destruction of the Republic.
Guest - Norah Ashoura on Tuesday, 28 March 2017 10:19

Hey, this is Norah! I appreciate your input - I will be sure to consider that in my next presentation :)
Have a great Tuesday!

To my high school teachers from Fort Lauderdale, thank you

Hey, this is Norah! I appreciate your input - I will be sure to consider that in my next presentation :) Have a great Tuesday! To my high school teachers from Fort Lauderdale, thank you
Guest - Ms. Godfrey (Fort Lauderdale High) on Tuesday, 28 March 2017 07:02

You are an inspiration Norah.

You are an inspiration Norah.
Guest - Mr. Donohue on Tuesday, 28 March 2017 08:42

Norah, I miss you! Stay brilliant!

Norah, I miss you! Stay brilliant!
Guest - Debbie Webb, Ph.D. on Thursday, 30 March 2017 15:05

I appreciate what you are doing to help those of us who have had cancer! Keep up the good work!

I appreciate what you are doing to help those of us who have had cancer! Keep up the good work!
Guest - AC Williams on Thursday, 30 March 2017 16:05

I hope what you are doing will change the future. God Bless you Norah and your research!

I hope what you are doing will change the future. God Bless you Norah and your research!
Guest - Adrienne on Friday, 31 March 2017 16:39

Thank you for your work in developing improved cancer treatment options and in translating science for the non-science audience. Thanks also for your volunteer debate work at Crockett HS. I am a Crockett HS graduate and credit much of my career success to the skills I learned while taking classes in theatre, speech and debate.

Thank you for your work in developing improved cancer treatment options and in translating science for the non-science audience. Thanks also for your volunteer debate work at Crockett HS. I am a Crockett HS graduate and credit much of my career success to the skills I learned while taking classes in theatre, speech and debate.
Guest - Dawn C on Friday, 31 March 2017 16:55

I think it is great what you are doing! Changing the world and working to fight cancer and translate that into a language everyone can understand.

I think it is great what you are doing! Changing the world and working to fight cancer and translate that into a language everyone can understand.
Guest - Mike on Saturday, 01 April 2017 11:21

I loved this article and am further interested on information regarding the research and future discoveries that may be revealed with your work. My mom has cancer and it's been quite a rough road. As a student here at UT, I would love to hear more about the research if at all possible!

I loved this article and am further interested on information regarding the research and future discoveries that may be revealed with your work. My mom has cancer and it's been quite a rough road. As a student here at UT, I would love to hear more about the research if at all possible!
Kristin E Phillips on Monday, 03 April 2017 12:09

Dear Mike,

The lab the Norah is part of recently published about a new technique that safely starves cancer. For use as a treatment, it is still early days. But you might find a quick read interesting: https://news.utexas.edu/2016/12/09/enzyme-starves-cancer-cells

The best to you and your mom!

Dear Mike, The lab the Norah is part of recently published about a new technique that safely starves cancer. For use as a treatment, it is still early days. But you might find a quick read interesting: https://news.utexas.edu/2016/12/09/enzyme-starves-cancer-cells The best to you and your mom!
Guest - Ogbuokiri David on Saturday, 01 April 2017 13:22

Great job you doing! Your uniqueness and simplicity are obvious.

Great job you doing! Your uniqueness and simplicity are obvious.
Already Registered? Login Here
Guest
Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Captcha Image