The Science of Cancer: Using Genetics, Biochemistry and Medicine to Save Lives

Dr. Benjamin Barthel
CU Boulder, Researcher Chemical and Biochemical Engineering
Science Discovery Teen Café


Dr. Benjamin Barthel discussed his work with cancer medications with a teen.

Dr. Benjamin Barthel discusses his work with cancer medications with a teen.


Written by youth leader Dominic Diana.

At our most recent café we had Dr. Benjamin Barthel here to talk about cancer and the ways we treat it. He began his talk with a discussion of what cancer is and how mutations and other factors cause it. Dr. Barthel also spoke about different treatments for the disease and how difficult it is to design chemotherapy drugs that are not terribly toxic to patients. The strongest chemotherapy drugs have terrible side effects for patients. Because of this, the frontier of cancer research is finding drugs that  are centered in their release and only target places in the body where there are tumors. If the release is targeted and localized, the toxins from the drug will be more contained and doctors can use drugs that are several orders of magnitude stronger than the previous best option to fight the disease in their patients. Dr. Barthel gave examples of several different drugs that work in this way, including one that is currently being developed by his lab group. The drug his group is developing is light activated, so the drug can be injected into a patient but the drug doesn’t work until they use light (delivered through CT scans, specifically) to activate the drug. In this way they can scan a patient for cancer while simultaneously treating tumors in a localized fashion.

Hands on Activity

The activity we had this week centered around the creation of a toxin targeting system combination. The café was split into groups and each group was given a type of cancer to discuss with some descriptions of the characteristics of the cancer and the surrounding body. We then had to choose what targeting system would best target the cancer and not the rest of the body of the person being treated. We also chose a toxin that best attacked the cancer and worked with the targeting agent. After each group decided what they had chosen we presented our final choice to the whole café. After each group went our speaker talked about each treatment we had chosen in the real world and if they worked or not and what research was currently being done about the individual agents.