Working for Global Young Academy, Bio2Bio consortium, the University of Edinburgh, and Far Eastern Federal University.
Cancer is still a deadly disease. Sasha Kagansky is trying to understand how cancer cells are different from normal cells on the molecular level, and how they react to natural compounds. How important are natural substances, plants, and mushrooms for the future of medicine?
Find out more from Sasha Kagansky on the importance of biodiversity, ancient traditions, and listen to his personal story.
Alexander: My name is Sasha Kagansky, and I work at the university of Edinburgh in research. I am also a member of Global Young Academy.
Nerina: What is your main research topic?
Alexander: The main research topic is cancer mechanisms. I try to see how- on a molecular level- cancer cells are different from normal cells. Specifically, we try to see what small molecules are different, and then present different small molecules from natural extracts to the cells to see if pathways in the cells can change enough for it to be useful in medicine.
Nerina: Is this a new approach?
Alexander: I think this is quite a traditional approach. The ways to use this approach have changed a little bit and I think we now have the great benefit of being able to take a tumor from the patient and quickly grow a lot of the cells, then test them while they are still like tumor cells. In the model organisms or cell cultures that were traditionally used, there was too much time passage after the tumor and it was only from a particular patient. Because we have miniaturization of everything, and robotization, there are now ways to test many samples at the same time. In the same way, we can try and collect many different medicinal species and make extracts and try them on many different patients derived cell samples and see if they affect a particular cellular activity. It is looking interesting and we are trying to produce some data that could be useful for medical doctors.
Nerina: Do I understand correctly that you use herbs in your research?
Alexander: Some, but it is not limited to herbs. We have used endemic plants of Mauritius which is a small country that has very unique plants and other species some of which were used in medicine in the past. The number of plants remaining from each of these species is dwindling, so it’s high time to try and understand what they could be used for. We have very exciting data and have already published a couple of papers- I hope there will be a couple more on just a few of the plants that we took from there.
There are also other places – for example, in the far east on the Pacific coast of Russia and neighboring China – that have a long tradition in using mushroom extracts. Specifically, there are mushrooms that grow in the trees- a lot of which were used in Chinese traditional medicine and for treating cancer. In Russia there’s a traditional mushroom called Chaga – it’s Latin name is Inonotus obliquus. It doesn’t look very pretty on the birch trees as it creates a black mask- we were joking as kids that it was an ancient mask left by a knight- but it was used by poor people instead of tea because the taste of the extract is a bit like that of tea. There is some anecdotal evidence- and I don’t see why it cannot be true- that there were fewer cases of cancer in this poorer population than in nobles which had tea. Now, modern science also agrees that it is anti-cancerous; there are publications connecting it to the treatment of cancer, and it’s not toxic so I think it should be one of the researched anti-cancer therapies because I’m an advocator of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way.
Nerina: You also collaborate with other researchers in order to raise awareness about the necessity of preserving biodiversity?
Alexander: From the looks of things the majority of medicinal plants have not been studied yet in the very exact terms of today’s technological advances. Yet, we are facing a massive extinction of traditionally used medicines around the world. I think that for the future we definitely would like to keep the forests and the sea going, and to try and make a depository of natural extracts. I think that the more we think and talk about it, and the more we agree as scientists from very different disciplines that it’s good to have wildlife, even though we cannot completely understand what it is doing. I think that is what we would like to try and contribute, that’s why art is necessary in order to be able to feel what the data suggests; and, without humanities, there is no way to understand the common language and the culture of the olden days which may be critical for today’s knowledge. Shamanic knowledge was very heavily restricted and punished in some cases, but now I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to try and increase our knowledge. Maybe we are only at the beginning of the road, but I think it’s a very good moment- if not a very late one- to engage with it to find out together. It’s enough of an issue for everyone to be involved in, there’s no time for competition in this.
Nerina: What does the future of cancer treatment look like in your opinion?
Alexander: I am an advocate of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way because a lot of cancer therapies are so invasive. Some of them destroy DNA very intensively- I have to admit the cure will allow prolonged survival of incurable patients, but I think cancer treatment will be complex in the future. I see how fast immunotherapy of cancer is developing, and I also see a lot of future in genomic and epigenomic therapy. I think there is still a very long way to go in finding molecules that are regulatory- that are changing the fate of the cells- because in a particular metabolic context, if a person has a particular diet and lifestyle, especially an adult, I think that the tissues in the organism-to a varying extent- are experiencing some particular stress. I think we could correct this stress by adding natural molecules. Sometimes it’s almost indistinguishable from food. I think if we understand the mechanism inside us that the molecules from the food and drink undergo, the more we can actually make food our medicine. This is a bit of an idealistic concept proposed very long ago by the Greeks, but I think it isn’t far from where people would like with their own treatment. I think now the crisis with herbal medicine is exaggerated by some members of the public that don’t see the difference between homeopathy and herbal medicine. I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘Ah, this doesn’t work!’- a lot of educated people- but it’s very important, and it looks like we need help from humanities here as well to try and separate understandings.
Nerina: What motivated you to enter this field of study?
Alexander: It’s difficult to say, but part of it was the trauma of losing people due to deadly diseases. Every time you are in the hospital it tunes your mind into thinking about these things, and somehow trying to think about it and deal with it helps to suppress anxiety and the uneasy feeling that all of life is associated with losing people. Almost everyone is under the constant stress of losing people or expecting to lose a person or expecting personal decline or death. Of course, it is unavoidable and is deeply part of our culture, but I think that it doesn’t allow us to breathe freely, and at times it’s so strong that if people don’t see solutions and feel like they can do competing, it really paralyzes them. I felt paralyzed and sometimes I still do, but my aspiration that through working on this through the related fields trying to connect bits of the puzzle- what are the molecules that can be put inside to try and talk your cells out of becoming cancer cells.
The reason why I’ve chosen the natural compounds is because I associate the death of my father from cancer with the dose of radiation he got while he was cleaning radium at his work. With my mum, she was complaining that she had a chlorine gas leakage at times because of the sophisticated equipment that she was operating at work, and therefore I don’t want to research radiation and its effects. It’s like a burn. Despite a lot of people lacking trust in natural compounds, I think there is a big future in it, and if we pay attention to the different compounds in plants, marine organisms, mushrooms, bacteria, and yeast, there is a chance that we won’t lose them and be left alone as a species. I don’t want a future where my ancestors live in a human-only world, therefore I think we should find reasons for humans to research nature and to be careful with it. Even species that may seem insignificant, like a shrub, may be discovered to be essential for a particular purpose. We should not let the diversity go, we should try to cooperate and share the knowledge and molecules, and we may have a chance.
Nerina: What keeps you going?
Alexander: It’s very interesting, I just feel that this area really is personal and I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to try and do it. Many people would say that I’m not successful and I can agree that we could be much faster and my mind could be much clearer, but I think it’s such a great opportunity to try and discuss these things with people who have had a different education, and it turns out that some of what I know can be useful or interesting and therefore I think interaction is one of the things that keeps me going; interaction with people, but also nature. I was going for a walk and you already see birds, grass, so many different colors and you feel great that you actually still have forests. It may surprise people in the future to see that there was so much forest, but I hope not- I hope there will still be plenty of forests.
Nerina: To you, what would it mean to be successful?
Alexander: If we are looking for success we may not know what we want, and in what we do we keep going with the information that we have, just trying to produce more of the good thing that you already uncovered. Being able to see different things and to be able to look at the same thing at different angles is what is also very important. I think trying new things is good- of course, you have to spend time and sometimes you feel the time has been wasted, but I think it happens even when you think you know very well what you are doing. We are all experimenting in life, there is no clarity in tomorrow.
Nerina: What makes life meaningful?
Alexander: I find talking about this very difficult because it is different from moment to moment. I think that meaning can change, and the way we look at the same thing can change. Therefore, I think hope is one of the meanings- being hopeful despite knowing how dreadful things are, and how much more dreadful they may be. I think the feeling that things can go in an unexpected way and you may surprise yourself even with the way you think about things and what you do that this feeling of hope becomes like a driving force if not a meaning. Some would say that hope is hollow, that it is only substantiated by the things that may or may not happen, but in my opinion, it is a very nice thing.
Also, of course, there are very fundamental things like friends, family, and I don’t want to be banal and say that love is the meaning, but I think that in a sense this unexplainable feeling of aspiration towards other people and elements of nature and some things that you cannot explain, even some things in your dreams or in impressions that you cannot put in words. They also substantiate life as a meaning I think.
Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?
Alexander: I wish there would be such a level of trust and mutual understanding between people in different cultures, and so much kindness and hopefulness that the understanding of the disaster of the loss of someone and of death in general, and the understanding of the value of having good health and loving people independently of connection to you by blood. I wish for a future where people could informally meet- like us- and discuss big things that they are anxious about or excited about, and where the sex, race, or discipline of academic knowledge would not matter as much as what it is that we can achieve or aspire to do, and how shall we treat people, how shall we commonly learn from different people? Adults learn from kids, kids learn from adults in different countries, and agreement from everyone on very basic things like that everyone shares the same desire to survive even if you are not human. This sounds like an acceptable future.
Nerina: Do you have a personal dream?
Alexander: Before I die I would like to think that there is something that I knew that was worth knowing- that something that I contributed is helping people. Having the ability to invest energy into something that is very personal and fundamental for my own aspiration of the future- what I mean is, if I put my time, money, effort and attention to finding some drugs or remedies for conditions that not only me or people that I know can suffer from, but that far away in the future or in another culture, there always will be people who may also be helped by this. Chemically we are related in more than just that we share common DNA, on the material level – apart from very nice spiritual feelings of this – we also share metabolism with certain people. I think that the more we can do that, the more energy I put into it and the more I think about it, and the more I exchange knowledge with people who use completely different tools and scientific language, the more we are empowering ourselves for the future, for friendship, for peace building, and we can also share good food and drink together!
Nerina: If you could, what would you tell your younger self?
Alexander: Try to focus on what people around you tell you, especially the ones that you love. Pay attention to what other things that happen around you, especially try to spend more time in nature, and look at birds and animals and learn from them. And also; don’t worry- just do your best.