Radiochemist Dr. Vanessa Sanders is an assistant scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) who studies how different versions of chemicals can be used to alternatively image and treat diseases like cancer, and she is the first African American woman in the United States to earn a PhD in radiochemistry.
Radiochemistry is a field of science that focuses on radioactive elements. These are unstable forms of elements (things like carbon, phosphorus, uranium, and arsenic) that give off radiation when they decay to their more stable form. If you can deliver the unstable form to a tumor and time it out so it gets there before it gives off that radiation, you can generate radiation at the site of the tumor.
There are different types of radiation, some more damaging than others so, depending on which (and how much) of an unstable element you deliver it’ll either give off a relatively low amount of harmless radiation that won’t damage the tissues but can be detected by equipment like a PET scanner, or a high (but locally-concentrated) amount of radiation that can kill the cancer cells. You don’t want to send in the latter type unless you’re sure it’s needed, so having the same delivery tool for diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment is a major advantage. So, Sanders is studying compounds that can do just that, in a subfield of radiochemistry called theragnostics
Sanders is currently an assistant scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory (part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)) where she works in the Medical Isotope Research and Production Program (MIRP). She was promoted to this position in April 2019 after working at BNL at a postdoctoral fellow.
She carried out her undergraduate education at Florida Memorial University (FMU) where, one summer she had the opportunity to perform research at the University of Texas, Austin that got her hooked on radiochemistry. She went on to earn a PhD in radiochemistry from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), where she studied an element called technetium (Tc).
Through the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program she carried out a collaborative fellowship between UNLV, Hunter College, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) that allowed her to test different delivery methods for Tc to try to optimize the timing so the compound wouldn’t all decay before it got there – specifically she designed delivery complexes that could hold different forms of radioactive elements and bind to cancer-targeted antibodies that had been introduced earlier (since these bigger antibodies take longer to get there).
Her current research projects involve; studying ways to deliver different forms of a different element, arsenic, to gastric cancer cells, in another collaboration with MSKCC; and developing new, more “portable” methods of producing radioactive elements closer to hospitals. Sanders is also a strong advocate for diversity in science and enjoys speaking to and mentoring students.