For generations of Americans sunburns were as much a part of growing up as riding your bike without a helmet and staying out way after dark.
We are sun worshippers.
But, having that bronzed body can be deadly.
What if we told you that some day there could be a sunburn pill, or cream, to reverse that damage and prevent skin cancer?
He is not the archetypical mad scientist, but Dr. Olaf Wiest is certainly passionate about skin cancer research.
As a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Notre dame, he has spent years researching the effects of excessive ultraviolet light on the skin. “I'm the kid who probably took apart a toy and said, how does this work, that's what really drives me,” he says.
Driving him from the chalkboard to the lab, Wiest has developed a molecule he and his colleagues believe can repair sun damaged DNA. “What we think about (is), what's really happening here? What happens between lying in the sun and getting skin cancer?” he asks. “What can we learn from these first basic results, things about repairing this damage and we made a molecule that will recognize the damage that is done and we quote on quote, repair it.”
It is no simple task.
Dr. Wiest stresses this is basic research in its early stages.
“So, we have shown that we can take a molecule like this one here, like the damage that is done and on small model systems, we can repair this, okay? So, you do the same thing on DNA. You take a piece of DNA that was light damaged, can you get it back to its original stage?”
You might expect Dr. Wiest’s work to take place in a showy, intricate laboratory.
But it takes place in this small lab, tucked inside the biochemistry hall at Notre Dame, where he and his students intentionally damage DNA, using 500 watts of pure light.
“You fire up the DNA and that is how you get the damage and so that is how we make this damaged sample,” he explains.
A four inch metal tube is key in his research. “The main part of the work happens where separation of the damaged and undamaged DNA goes through is actually happening in here.”
What you see in another room makes up one huge computer, another crucial role in his research. “This is one of the fastest computers in the world, yet it will take weeks and months to complete the calculations,” Dr. Wies says.
There is no guarantee. He adds, “It's research. You always have failures and successes. But, if you have the success, it's what you live for.”
He lives for is knowing that his basic research is a step toward developing a way to prevent skin cancer.
It is a step that may be finished by one of the many researchers worldwide, working to repair sun damaged skin before it turns cancerous. “The only thing that counts, (is) does it get done?” he says. “Who does it is almost secondary.”
Regardless of who gets it done, Wiest sees a product, maybe a pill or cream, in the not so distant future.
“The hope would ultimately (be that) you get to the point where you could apply this molecule after the damage was done so the day after you got your sunburn you will just (apply it), like a sunscreen the day after, and it would repair the damage that is done and prevent the skin cancer. It will get done and probably in less than ten years would be my prediction.”
It is a prediction that could ultimately save millions of lives.
So do not throw away your sunscreen yet.
Dr. Wiest says prevention is still the best thing we can do to stay healthy.
Use sunscreen, and NewsCenter 16 will keep you posted on Dr. Wiest's research.