Sue Armstrong is a science writer and broadcaster. As a foreign correspondent based in Brussels and then South Africa, she worked for, among others, New Scientist and the BBC World Service. She has worked as a consultant writer for the WHO and UNAIDS for more than 25 years, and was commissioned by the WHO to write a book on AIDS, for which she reported from many of the worst affected countries of Africa and Asia.
Her book on pathology, A Matter Of Life And Death, was published in 2010. p53: The Gene That Cracked the Cancer Code, published in 2014, was ‘highly commended’ by the British Medical Association and shortlisted for the BMA Book Awards 2015 in the Basis of medicine category. She lives in Edinburgh.
What is your story about?
It’s about a gene called p53 that is arguably the single most important gene in cancer. Its job is to prevent tumours from forming, and the gene is corrupted by mutation or prevented by some other means from working normally in virtually every case of human cancer. I focus on a group of people in southern Brazil born with mutant p53 in every cell in their bodies, who are therefore extremely vulnerable to cancer, and on the medics and scientists working with them. Where did the mutant gene originate? What effect does it have? What can the Brazilian carriers tell us about how p53 – our bodies’ first line of defence against cancer – works normally and what happens when it goes wrong? In other words, what can they tell us about the dynamics within cancerous cells? Lots, it seems!
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
This gene is almost endlessly fascinating as it seems to play a role in regulating so many of the key processes of living, from quality control of our cells (that’s cancer prevention at work), to ageing, to energy production through metabolism. But what most stopped me in my tracks in writing this story was the testimony of a father whose son George inherited a mutant copy of p53 and died at 17 after a childhood spent in and out of hospital being treated for multiple tumours. It made me realise how high the stakes are in cancer research and how big the gap can be between the promise of science and the delivery. There can be few things more cruel and lonely than the moment a patient and his or her family are told there is no more the doctors can do, they have exhausted all options for treatment, and they are on their own.
Read Sue’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 15 September 2015.