By Jack Chan, a cancer researcher at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
The word ‘cancer’ can be frightening and is often shrouded in confusion and ambiguity. This leads to the questions: ‘What is cancer?’, ‘How does one get cancer?’ and ‘How do we treat cancer?’ Fortunately, Lifeology is consistently developing a library of cancer-focused illustrated flashcard mini-courses to answer these questions. These courses can help patients and caregivers navigate this disease and its treatment, but also help anyone learn more about the biology of cancer.
Authored by Dr Paige Jarreau and Dr. Gaius Augustus, the ‘What is Cancer?’ course describes how the cells of our body follow strict rules and how a cancer can develop when cells break them. This course explores how cells become cancerous through loss of cellular checks and balances caused by DNA damage, leading to uncontrolled cell division and potential spread of cancers to different sites across the body.
Our next cancer course, ‘Hallmarks of Cancer’ written and illustrated by Dr Gaius Augustus, investigates the hallmarks of cancer through the perspective of a patient named Shaundra. The hallmarks of cancer were defined by cancer researchers Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg and are the underlying features shared by all or most cancers. These hallmarks include but are not limited to limitless cell division, ability to spread to other sites in the body and evasion of the immune system, a feature that has emerged as a relatively new hallmark. As cancer is a multifaceted disease, the importance of understanding that each cancer is unique is highlighted and necessary in developing Shaundra’s treatment plan.
Our most recent course, ‘What is immunotherapy?’ continues Shaundra’s journey as she explores the power of her immune system and how it can be used to fight the cancer in her body. This course is my first work featured here on Lifeology and covers a topic that is very close to me.
In this course, we take you through biological concepts including what our immune system is and how every day, it eliminates cancerous cells in our body without us noticing. We explore how cancer cells can evade our immune system and, in some cases, directly prevent our immune system from acting against the cancer. However, through our understanding of these immune evasion mechanisms, we can harness aspects of our immune system to get around these roadblocks and restore the cancer-eliminating functions of our immune system.
Immunotherapies have emerged as important and often successful modes of cancer treatment. The effectiveness of some immunotherapies has led to clinical use. Important examples include immune checkpoint blockade, which can unlock the potential of immune cells, and CAR T cell therapy, which enables more immune cells to fight cancer.
Despite this, cancer immunotherapy in its early years was actually met with skepticism across the oncology and immunology communities. However, now with huge advances in our understanding of immunity and cancer biology, the landscape of cancer immunotherapy has weighed dramatically in its favour. Immunotherapy is now frequently recognised as a new pillar of cancer treatment. Immunotherapy is especially important when other treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are ineffective.
My line of work focuses on CAR T cell research. CAR T cells are white blood cells modified to directly recognise the cancer in a patient’s body. These cells are made from a patient’s own blood sample, thereby empowering the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. CAR T cells have been very successful in the treatment of a subset of blood-based cancers, with a number of patients becoming cancer free following their treatment.
In my research, I am uncovering new methods to make CAR T cells more effective for a greater range of cancers. Others are working on making this therapy more accessible by making CAR T cell development more cost effective and more universal to patients. I am fortunate enough to be working in a comprehensive cancer centre where specialist cancer care and research take place in the same building.
Development of this course has been an extremely enjoyable, collaborative process and a great opportunity to share aspects of what I do in cancer research. These courses are all brought to life by illustrator Dr Gaius Augustus, whose work continues to be prevalent across Lifeology. Please keep an eye on this space as myself and other creators continue to bring more cancer courses to Lifeology!
On Illustrating “What is Immunotherapy?” by Gaius Augustus
When I met Jack Chan, I knew that working with him on a Lifeology course would be fun. He brought great energy and style to the project. Early on, with the help of Lifeology, we decided to make this course a followup to the Hallmarks of Cancer course. That made my job as illustrator easier because I was already very familiar with Shaundra, the main character.
In the previous course, I chose to focus most of the artistic detail on what was happening inside the body. Now, in this new What is Immunotherapy? course, I wanted to give that same sense of detail to the patient. That meant changing the art style.
It is always hard to decide what parts of the art style to keep and what parts to change. I decided to keep the color palette similar to the Hallmarks of Cancer course because it was the most recognizable part of the art style I chose.
For cards that took place inside the body, not a whole lot changed. I’ve refined the style while working on other projects, and I hope that those changes make the course more aesthetically pleasing but also more readable.
Outside the body is where you’ll see the biggest changes to the art style in this course. I fleshed out the character designs for real-life Shaundra and for her oncologist. Unlike the Hallmarks of Cancer course, we get to see expressions on their faces. We get to see Shaundra as she goes through the difficult process of cancer therapy. We see how her oncologist works with her to choose a therapy, and we get to see her family helping in her care.
Jack’s writing turned an interesting topic into a heartfelt story. I was really excited to illustrate a course on immunotherapy, as it’s a topic I’ve written about in the past. But this experience went beyond just illustrations. It allowed me to follow this character, Shaundra, through an incredibly tough experience, and watch as she and her support system worked through their options to find a personalized treatment that worked.
What questions do you have about cancer and its treatment? Let us know for future Lifeology courses – e-mail us your questions at Lifeology@lifeomic.com.